Briefings Magazine

A Great Lakes Shipping Disaster

The largest and fastest freighter in the region sinks, taking 29 lives but spawning new safety rules in shipping.

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By: Glenn Rifkin

On November 9, 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald departed Superior, Wisconsin, loaded with 26,000 tons of iron ore and bound for the steel mills of Detroit. At 729 feet, it was at the time the largest and fastest freighter ever to sail the Great Lakes. Admirers dubbed it “the pride of the American side.”

As it left, a powerful gale was building from the Great Plains and heading for Lake Superior. Early winter storms were common, and the “Fitz,” as it was called, had weathered many of them. But that night, a tempest raged, with hurricane-force winds, mountainous waves, and freezing rain. Seventeen miles from shore, Captain Ernest M. McSorley radioed a fellow freighter to say the ship was taking water. But when asked how the Fitzgerald was faring, he replied, “We are holding our own.”

That would be the last transmission from the ship. Sometime during the late-night hours, the Edmund Fitzgerald either broke in half or was capsized by a monstrous wave. McSorley never sent a distress signal, and the cause would never be definitively known. The ship, with its crew of 29, sank to the bottom of Lake Superior, with no survivors.

Since the 17th century, there had been more than 6,000 shipwrecks and 30,000 lives lost on the Great Lakes, but none as big or as expensive as the $8 million Edmund Fitzgerald, which had been commissioned by the chairman and CEO of Northwestern Mutual and named in his honor. Its loss was felt deeply across the maritime communities of the Great Lakes, and would be memorialized by folk singer Gordon Lightfoot in the ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Ultimately, the loss would lead to significant changes in both Great Lakes and national shipping regulations. Companies were subsequently required to include mandatory survival suits, depth finders, and positioning systems, and to carry out more frequent vessel inspections.

Oglebay Norton Co., whose origins dated back to 1854, survived the loss of the ship, but trouble in the declining US steel industry took a toll and the company found itself overwhelmed by debt. It declared bankruptcy in 2004 and reemerged after a major reorganization in 2005, only to be sold to a Belgian company.

For Mike TenEyck, a retired Naval Reactors Program operations design engineer who wrote a book-length white paper about the Edmund Fitzgerald, the shipwreck spurred a raft of cultural and technical advances. Weather forecasting technology improved substantially, TenEyck said, and captains increasingly chose to remain at the dock rather than risk being at the mercy of a November gale. “Those 29 men didn’t die in vain,” said TenEyck, the son of a Great Lakes maritime captain. Since the Edmund Fitzgerald, not one Great Lakes freighter has sunk.



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