SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich.—The Great Lakes have claimed thousands of ships since European explorers began navigating the waters in the 1600s, but few have captured the public’s imagination as has the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank on Nov. 10, 1975, in Lake Superior.
Much of that attention is owed to Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which memorialized the ship and its crew members, whose bodies remain with the sunken vessel.
“Lake Superior seldom coughs up her victims unless they’re wearing life jackets. As of this time, we have no reason to believe the men of the Fitzgerald had time to get into life jackets,” Capt. Charles A. Millradt, commander of the Soo Coast Guard Station, said at the time.
Nothing so tragic has occurred on the Great Lakes since.
Rescuers searched Lake Superior’s chilly waters Tuesday for the 29-member crew of the sunken ore-carrier Edmund Fitzgerald but found only an oil slick, empty lifeboats and life jackets.
Aircraft and ships crisscrossed the lake’s eastern tip in the area where the ship, once the largest ore-carrier on Lake Superior, went down in 520 feet of water about 7:30 p.m. Monday.
Coast Guard officials said it was unlikely anyone could survive in the 51-degree water more than three hours but added that they were still hopeful.
The 729-foot vessel vanished from radar screens as winds of hurricane force – of 75 miles per hour – raised waves to 25 feet in 42-degree weather.
“In those conditions, survivability on the average would be about three hours,” said a Coast Guard spokesman. “But this has been greatly exceeded on many occasions if they got into a protective life raft or were wearing protective clothing.”
An oil slick, two lifeboats, a life raft and other debris were found in the area, with some washing up on the Canadian shore 13 miles to the northeast. One of the lifeboats had a serial number matching that of the ship, authorities said.
Among the debris were several orange life jackets, some bobbing in the water and others washed onto the rocky shoreline.
The lake surface was extremely calm Tuesday, and search operations were aided by a dull grey sky which eliminated reflections and made it easier to spot debris from the air.
Two freighters, a pair of Coast Guard helicopters and two planes were taking part in the search.
The Coast Guard said the Fitzgerald may have broken up and sunk before a distress call could be made. A nearby vessel, the Arthur M. Anderson, reported it received a call Monday night from the Fitzgerald. The call indicated the Fitzgerald was taking on water but its pumps were working and the vessel was not in immediate danger.
One Coast Guard spokesman said the Fitzgerald “probably broke in two.” But Ens. Kenneth Baker added that a hatch cover could have blown off, causing the vessel to take on water.
“In high seas, if they’re not secured a couple of hatch covers could come off. If that happens, a ship will take on water very fast,” he said.
The sinking was the first major Great Lakes shipping disaster in nine years. On Nov 29, 1966, the lives of 28 crewmen were lost when the freighter Daniel J. Morrell sank in a Lake Huron storm.
Oglebay Norton Co., of Cleveland, Ohio, which charters the Fitzgerald, identified the captain as E.R. McSorley of Toledo, Ohio, and the chief engineer as George Holl of Cabot. Pa. Oglebay was withholding the names of the 27 others aboard.
The vessel, owned by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Milwaukee, was loaded with about 26,000 tons of taconite pellets on Sunday at Superior, Wis., and was bound for Detroit, officials said. The pellets are an intermediate product in iron mining.
“We’re finding a lot of debris and we’ve found a couple of lifeboats. But we haven’t found any people alive or dead,” said Chief Jere Bennett of the Coast Guard air rescue station at Sault Ste. Marie.
The storm, typical of the sudden violent weather on the Great Lakes in November, was described by some local observers as the worst in 35 years.
The winds Monday overturned a truck on the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge, which connects Michigan’s two peninsulas, and forced the bridge to close.
Prior to the 1966 sinking of the Morrell, 33 lives were lost when the 603-foot freighter Carl D. Bradley broke up at the top of Lake Michigan on Nov. 19, 1958.
On Nov. 11, 1940, three ships went down and 57 lives were lost in Lake Michigan during a violent three-day storm.
On Nov. 11, 1913, a hurricane claimed 19 ships in Lake Huron, killing 254 persons.