41 years ago today, on November 10, 1975 the Great Lakes bulk cargo vessel SS Edmund Fitzgerald carrying a cargo of taconite pellets sank with the loss of all 29 crew members in eastern Lake Superior, about 17 miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay, Michigan during a severe storm. The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was considered the largest and fastest Great Lakes ship. It set multiple records for the largest season-hauls.
On November 8th, an area of low pressure developed over the Southern Plains and moved northeastward and intensified to 1000mb by 8am on the 9th over Kansas and later to 993mb over Iowa. A gale warning was issued by the National Weather Service for Lake Superior during the early afternoon hours on the 9th. In the updated forecast, the NWS predicted north to northwest winds of 37 to 55-mph in the afternoon, becoming northwesterly between 46 to 89-mph in the evening. Waves of 8 to 16 feet were also forecasted.
The Fitzgerald’s Captain Ernest McSorely reported problems around 3:30 p.m. that afternoon in a radio message to the S.S. Arthur Anderson: “Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I’m checking down. Will you stay by me till I get to Whitefish?”
During the afternoon hours on November 10th, the low moved northeast to near James Bay, deepening to 978mb causing westerly to northwesterly winds to increase over Lake Superior. Between 5 and 5:30pm, Captain McSorley reported that the vessel was now listing badly and that they were taking heavy seas over the deck.
The last contact with the Fitzgerald took place at 7:10 p.m. The Fitzgerald crew reported that the ship was “holding our own.” Just five minutes later, the Anderson’s radar lost the Fitzgerald’s signal. Another call to the Fitzgerald at 7:22 p.m. went unanswered. Around 10:00 p.m. the Anderson’s crew discovered the Fitzgerald’s lifeboats and other wreckage, but no sign of survivors.
The highest winds that occurred with this storm were over the southeastern part of Lake Superior where the Edmond Fitzgerald was heading. On the eastern edge of the high wind area, which is where the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, the wave heights reached a maximum of 26 feet. Since the vessel was heading east-southeastward, the waves were quartering to following which resulted in heavy rolling. Maximum sustained winds occurred between 7 and 8pm, which were between 70 to 75-mph with gusts up to 85-mph.
Headline Image: Bob Campbell, Grand Ledge, MI via NWS Marquette