Discover 10 Newly Gleaned Details of the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck and Why She Sank So Fast!

Discover 10 Newly Gleaned Details from the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck and Understand Why She Sank So Fast | By: Chris Trautman | | Published: September 18, 2023

What happened to the SS Edmund Fitzgerald?

Date: November 10, 1975 

Official Statement from the NTSB about the Edmund Fitzgerald Accident 

"The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck was the sudden massive flooding of the cargo hold due to the collapse of one or more hatch covers.

Before the hatch covers collapsed, flooding into the ballast tanks and tunnel through topside damage and flooding into the cargo hold through non-weathertight hatch covers caused a reduction of freeboard and a list.

The hydro-static and hydrodynamic forces imposed on the hatch covers by heavy boarding seas at this reduced freeboard and with the list caused the hatch covers to collapse.

Contributing to the accident was the lack of transverse weathertight bulkheads in the cargo hold and the reduction of freeboard authorized by the 1969, 1971, and 1973 amendments to the Great Lakes Load Line Regulations."


  • How Did the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck?
  • Cargo Hatch Failure Caused The Rapid Flooding of The Ship
  • Reduction of Freeboard Imperiled the Ship from the Start
  • No Way for The Crew to Survive
  • Crew Probably Knew they Were Doomed
  • Can You Dive To The Edmund Fitzgerald?
  • Devastating Massive Explosive Impact With The Bottom of Lake Superior
  • How Fast Did The Edmund Fitzgerald Sink?
  • How Deep Is The Edmund Fitzgerald?
  • The Top Deck Has Caved In
  • 10 Where Did The Edmund Fitzgerald Really Sink?
  • Edmund Fitzgerald Interactive Map & Sites
  • Weather and The Waves
  • Why is Lake Superior So Dangerous?
  • Animated Track of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the drastic weather changes.
  • Timeline of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s Final Voyage, Shipwreck and Search
  • Coast Guard Search and Rescue Vessels Involved
  • Civilian Vessels Involved in Search for Survivors
  • Remembering The 29 Brave Crew Members of Edmund Fitzgerald Freighter
  • What Was The Edmund Fitzgerald Carrying At The Time?
  • NTSB Conclusions On Why The Edmund Fitzgerald Sank
  • Theories of How the Edmund Fitzgerald Sank

How Did the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck?

Unfortunately, there were no eyewitnesses to account for exactly how the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck occurred.  The Investigators from the NTSB came to conclusions based on interviews, weather, radio transmissions and investigating the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck site.

Since the initial investigation, many surveys and dives have been completed and assessed. Still, some enigmas remain unsolved because researchers can no longer dive at the wreck.

The lack of more investigations compounds the unknown details that sunk the Fitzgerald, and, as a result, the tale stays clouded in speculation.

We analyzed, investigated, and summed up the most likely events based on official reports. So, opinions a person may come across relating to the  Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck in other media will all need more facts which no one will ever know; we tried to exclude unlikely ideas like those and believe our content gives the best picture of what assumedly happened.

The Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck and the events leading up to the accident are complicated subjects to cover because it's so important that we respect the circumstances so as not to distort history and the families involved.

We figured out a way to write our opinion on how and why the ship sank without eyewitnesses, using just hard evidence and interviews from government sources. The interviews were done and concluded in an investigative fashion by the NTSB.

The lack of eyewitnesses is how this misfortune became so famous. In comparison, we have learned more about the Titanic's disaster over a hundred years ago than the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck. This fact makes the Edmund Fitzgerald wreck a historical tragedy and so famous.

#1 Cargo Hatch Failure Caused The Rapid Flooding of The Ship

Cargo hatches  #1 & 2 collapsed from the raging storm and weight of the water on top them. The Cargo hatches were initially designed for 4 feet of static water, in subsequent dives to the wreck these covers were found collapsed and sitting inside the hold and on top of the cargo of the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck.

The covers are a top plug style and secured with lots of Kestner clamps (shown in photo) and removed from the top. At the time, the weight and height of the water was three times the initial design limits of the cover and caused its collapse then immediately would have caused rapid flooding of cargo bay one. 

This pushed the bow underwater and most likely the stern high.  Due to the low reserve buoyancy and the heavy cargo the ship sank quickly. 

More about the hatch covers....

Each opening was made weathertight by a single-piece steel hatch cover. The hatch covers were made of 5/16-inch stiffened plate with a 9/16-inch rubber gasket around the underside of the plate's perimeter. Each hatch cover was secured by 68 manually operated "Kestner" clamps arranged on 2-foot centers.

Each clamp had an adjustment bolt which determined the force applied by the individual clamp and therefore controlled the deflection of the hatch cover, the compression of the rubber gasket, and the weathertightness of the hatch opening.

There were no written procedures concerning maintenance or adjustment of the hatch clamps or gaskets. An electrically operated hatch cover crane which ran on rails outboard of the cargo hatch openings was used for lifting the hatch covers.

Proper torqueing would have been critical of the hatch cover Kestner clamps. 

#2 Reduction of Freeboard Imperiled the Ship from the Start

The ship rode low in the water due to the heavy loading of the taconite cargo, 25-foot waves, and the source of an undetermined leak. 

On this trip in 1975 she would of had a Freeboard of 11 feet 6 inches during the winter and this load.  The Freeboard limits provide reserve buoyancy for different seas.  As she took on water, the Freeboard was lost and was ultimately reduced to zero.

Water over the top deck the ship made the vessel more like a submarine than a surface ship. From the inside, the pilot house windows with the waves crashing over their visibility would be near zero.

In higher seas researchers calculated the ship had 12.5 feet of water rolling over the top of the deck.  The cargo hatches are nust not designed for that much water. 

To the crew the view would appear nearly underwater all the time.  This could be the reason for no distress call or possible damage to the radio.

What is Freeboard?

The relaxed Freeboard Regulations shown above were changed back to the original specifications as built after the accident per the recommendations of the NTSB and U.S Coast Guard.

On the day of the wreck, it's still unclear if the changes were made earlier that would have made a difference, but they would have had more time to navigate before a total loss of buoyancy occurred. Would it have been enough? Nobody knows.

Did You Know?

The Edmund Fitzgerald Freeboard was set during the loading process at the Superior, Wisconsin dock, which loaded the taconite pellets at Burlington Northern Railroad Dock No. 1.

  • Loading was completed on November 9th, 1975, at 14:15
  • The final draft was 27 feet 2 inches forward and 27 feet 6 inches aft
  • The First Mate John McCarthy reported this
  • Freeboard at departure was about 12 feet 4 inches
  • Freeboard was not at the minimum, but much less than it was at the time of construction, its logical to conclude more Freeboard would have given the ship more time to make it to Whitefish bay

#3 No Way for The Crew to Survive

Even if the crew realized early that the ship was lost and abandoned ship before the sinking, rescue would have been near impossible.  The Coast Guard didn't have a vessel at the time that could navigate the seas of the storm nearby.  U.S. Coast Guard rescue vessel Woodrush took 21 hours to arrive on scene from the Duluth port.  This would have left the crew no way to survive the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck. 

Their only hope was the safety of White Fish Bay, where maybe they could be rescued off or near the ship. 

If the crew were equipped with survival suits chances of survival drastically increase.  This is why the Coast Guard now requires cargo vessels of the great lakes to have survival suits for crew members.

#4 Crew Probably Knew they Were Doomed

With hurricane-force winds and taking on water, the Captain and crew probably knew they were sinking. Experienced witnesses say it was the worse seas they had experienced. Factor an experienced captain knows his ship and its capability to weather issues.

The Fitzgerald was disabled, and they probably knew it. It was apparent to anyone on board that the ship was damaged as listing to one side with visible damage to the Fence Rail and missing vents. Many theories surround the damage issue.

The water over the deck and the view out the windows would be enough to convince any sailor they were on a perilous journey.
If the Captain needed to be more transparent, the crew was left to make assumptions and probably did about the survivability of the treacherous journey. For example, in one of the radio calls, Captain McSorley can be heard telling someone to tell the crew to stay off the deck.

They would not communicate such fears and emotions over the radio. Before losing contact, Captain McSorley stated five minutes before losing touch that they "were holding their own."

#5 Can You Dive To The Edmund Fitzgerald?

It's illegal to dive at the site of Edmund Fitzgerald wreck since 1995, including using side-scanning sonar equipment. One of the reasons for this is that one of the dives sadly found a crew member tied outside, still wearing a life preserver, to the ship's bow.  

Were Bodies Found On The Edmund Fitzgerald?

So yes, one crew was found outside the ship and was possibly aware of the potential of sinking. Though no bodies were recovered, the wreck site is considered a grave. The sad discovery triggered legal action as the divers involved upset the families. Canada and the State of Michigan have regulations requiring licensing and enforcement with steep fines for violators.

Did You Know?

  • 58 Million pounds of Taconite is enough to make 7500 vehicles. 
  • The Edmund Fitzgerald cargo hold was carrying the equivalent of almost 59 fully loaded Boeing 747-8 airliners.  
  • The average American weighs 180 pounds, and the Fitzgerald could carry the weight of 322,222  Americans.  
  • University of Michigan's "The Big House's" largest attendance record was 115,109 people, set on Sept. 7, 2013.
  • The Fitzgerald could carry the attendance weight of 2.8 fully packed U of M's Stadiums!
  • Per the 2023 census, the population of Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor are the equivalent weight of cargo that could be transported on the Fitz! 
  • It's easy to see why the bulk cargo ships are essential to move cargo efficiently. 

#6 Devastating Massive Explosive Impact With The Bottom of Lake Superior

Side scan sonar results from an earlier scan found at Rochester Institute of Technology show the bow section as Fitzgerald plowed into the lake bottom, traveling 35 mph. As indicated on the ship's bow, she lies in a trench of mud she pushed at the impact of about 30 feet deep.

The ship was fully loaded with about 58 million pounds of taconite at the time of the sinking. Most likely the impact force involved while sinking to the bottom at 35 mph caused the ship to structurally explode, as all that mass rapidly stopped as it hit the lake bottom.

By our calculation, the impact created a force of 46 Kilotons. The mass of the taconite cargo was concentrated at the center of the ship; when conceptualizing, you can see how this is enough to easily rupture the mid-ship section at cargo hold number two. However, the bow and stern bulkhead constructions would have held these areas intact.

During the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck the stern broke away, drifted a little bit, and rotated upside down, either from the torque of the prop shaft rotation or a change in buoyancy.

One popular theory is the ship broke up on the surface, but it would have a different debris field than it has. Most likely, the stern would have powered on, and the drift-down location would be farther away than it is. This theory of surface breakup is prevalent, but we agree with the official findings on this one.

#7 How Fast Did The Edmund Fitzgerald Sink (Estimated)?

While upright, intact, and still under power on the surface, the ship would have sunk in (or disappeared, aka completely swamped) in roughly 35 seconds—an assumption based on moving at 14 mph, approximately 20.5 feet per second.

The actual sinking is more nuanced, as shown in our phases below. Due to carrying the cargo of taconite, the ship most likely sank in about 65 seconds. Since no one witnessed the sinking, this is calculated from its known state of buoyancy and the dive investigation discovery of the failed cargo hatches #1 & #2 lying inside the hold, pushed in from the water load.  


There would have been four phases:

  1. 15:20 (approx.) Initial top side damage report and taking on water, but still underway.
  2. 15:20-19:15 (approx.) "Holding their own (Captain McSorley)" high seas, taking on more water and eventual loss of buoyancy, leading to slipping under the surface.
  3.  19:15-19:16 (approx.) The ultimate failure of the cargo hatches was due to the added vertical static load of the water and then rapid flooding of holds after the forward hatch failures, which led to the bow pitching down at a 20-degree angle towards the bottom.
  4. 19:16-19:17 (approx.) Impact on the bottom and the destruction of the midship with separation of the stern and bow sections. Most likely, at this time, both lifeboats break free, one is cut in half by the ship's propeller, and then both float to the surface.

#8 How Deep Is The Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck?

The lake's bottom depth is 530 feet; from the surface, the ship would have taken 30 seconds for the bow to strike the bottom, calculated by traveling 1550 feet at a 20-degree angle to the lake bottom while sinking at 35 mph. 

These two details show it took 65 seconds to rest on the lake bottom from the surface! So in little over a minute, the ship was in sight on the surface to sitting on the lake bottom. The descent to the bottom was accelerated by the engines still powering the vessel forward in a dash to safety at White Fish Bay.

The speed at which it most likely sank is the number one reason we believe the ship had no survivors or distress calls.

#9 The Top Deck Has Caved In

The ship is deteriorating quickly on the bow section top deck. The bow section was heavily damaged on impact and collapsed in a side scan view from 1995. Protective coatings and paint loss during the impact with the lake bottom have accelerated the decay of the ship.

Typically in cold fresh waters, shipwrecks last a long time. Most likely galvanic corrosion is occurring from the taconite and causing the ship to decay faster. The ships steel hull is losing electrons via a process of electrolysis to the taconite which is located in what was the cargo hold. This weakens the steel over time, much as a car rusts from winter salted roads.   

#10 Where Did The Edmund Fitzgerald Really Sink?

 The wreck is partially in U.S. waters and Canada Boundary Lines.

The Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck location is actually along the international border with Canada. Due to errors in the nautical charts and the path of the boundary lines changing, 2/3rds of the wreck lies in U.S. waters when based on GPS coordinates.

Where Is The Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck Location?

Answer: Coordinates 46°59.9' N, 85°06.6'W in Lake Superior, 17 miles from White Fish Point.  

Edmund Fitzgerald Interactive Map & Sites

Explore the map of where to find artifacts and sites relating to the Edmund Fitzgerald. Come to Michigan and explore for yourself. We also have the timeline and track of both the Arthur Anderson and Edmund Fitzgerald as they traverse Lake Superior seeking shelter. 

Weather and The Waves at the time that cause the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck 

Worse place to be at the worse possible time, with a wounded ship.

Waves from the storm were reported as high as 30 feet  (9 meters) near the location of where the Edmund Fitzgerald sank.  The waves gained size as they travelled across Lake Superior in a South Easterly direction.  Roughly the same course the Arthur Anderson and Edmund Fitzgerald were steering.  The waves would be coming from the ships stern to the bow.  

Open water creates the opportunity for waves to get bigger with wind.  The term is called "Wind Fetch".  

Why is Lake Superior So Dangerous?

The Edmund Fitzgerald wreck is a good example of why Lake Superior is so dangerous.  Like you see above with the winds and waves how fast things can change in a matter of hours. 

The land can work against you as it did with this case as the waves bounced between the shores of Upper Michigan and Canada.  The long fetch of the big lake and the weather systems that go through can catch the inexperienced and the experienced mariners off guard. 

Even today I can vouch for the weather in our area of Michigan as difficult to forecast.  Many weather forecasters are unable to or wish not to take the time to accurately predict what's a difficult combination of environmental factors, namely lake effect. 

Check out the animation of the night Edmund Fitzgerald sank to see how fast the storm escalated!  Follow the "Blue X", West Lake Superior, which is the path of the Fitzgerald and the weather conditions and time stamps.  

Click to Play the Animated Track of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the drastic weather changes.

Timeline of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s Final Voyage, Shipwreck and Search

08:30 November 9, 1975

The SS EDMUND FITZGERALD began loading 26,116 long tons of taconite pellets at Burlington Northern Railroad Dock No. 1 in Superior, Wisconsin. This pier, known as a "chute pier," is equipped with built-in storage bins, known as "pockets," which are usually filled before a vessel arrives. Chutes are lowered from each "pocket" to direct the cargo into the hatches of the vessel.

Most of the "pockets" are filled with 300 tons of taconite pellets; however, a few pockets are filled with 100 tons or 200 tons. These smaller amounts of cargo are used during the final phase of loading to trim the ship for departure.

14:15 November 9

Loading was completed. 

The chief mate informed dock personnel that the vessel's final drafts were 27 feet 2 inches forward and 27 feet 6 inches aft.

Drafts were taken after receipt of the taconite pellets and 50,013 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil, delivered by a barge which came alongside while the cargo was being loaded.

Neither shipboard nor dock personnel experienced difficulties while loading the cargo nor was any difficulty or damage reported by the crew of the EDMUND FITZGERALD. Shoreside personnel saw the ship's crew replacing the hatch covers after loading.

14:15 November 9

FITZGERALD proceeded at full speed of 99 rpm, approximately 16.3 mph. About 1630, the SS ARTHUR M. ANDERSON departed Two Harbors, Minnesota, with a similar cargo en route to Gary, Indiana. Separated by 10 to 20 miles, the two vessels proceeded on similar courses across Lake Superior.

01:00 November 10

FITZGERALD made routine weather report. 

02:00 November 10

Because of predicted deteriorating weather, the receipt of storm warnings at the time, and discussions by radiotelephone, the FITZGERALD and ANDERSON departed the recommended shipping lanes along the southern shore of Lake Superior, and proceeded northeastward south of Isle Royal, then eastward along the northern shore, and then south eastward along the eastern shore.

This departure from the recommended track allowed the two vessels to take advantage of the cover provided by the Canadian shore. This is a generally accepted practice among Great Lake’s mariners to avoid adverse sea conditions during fall and winter storms when the wind direction makes this lee available.

During the first 10 to 11 hours of the voyage, the ANDERSON was ahead of FITZGERALD; however, about 03:00 on November 10, the faster FITZGERALD pulled slightly ahead.

07:00 November 10

FITZGERALD again made a routine weather report. Reported weather:  Winds are 35 knots and waves of 10 feet.


In the normal morning report to the company office, the FITZGERALD said her estimated time of arrival at Sault Ste. Marie was indefinite because of bad weather.

12:52 November 10

As the FITZGERALD and the ANDERSON approached the eastern shore of Lake Superior (Canada), the FITZGERALD proceeded farther east than the ANDERSON before changing to a southeasterly course toward Michipicoten Island.

Since the FITZGERALD traveled a greater distance at a higher speed, the distance between the two vessels remained almost constant.

At this time the ANDERSON was abeam Otter Island at a range of 10.8 miles, and the FITZGERALD was 8 miles ahead and slightly east of the ANDERSON's track.

At that point, the FITZGERALD was about 17 miles north-northwest of Michipicoten Island.

13:50 November 10

ANDERSON changed course to 230° T to allow more sea room west of Michipicoten Island because the wind was predicted to haul to the northwest.  She logged winds as Northwest by West at 5 Knots.

At this time, the FITZGERALD was 2 1/2 to 3 miles southwest of Michipicoten Island, and she advised the ANDERSON that she would "continue on" although she was "rolling some."

The FITZGERALD continued southeastward toward Whitefish Point on a course of 141° T while the ANDERSON proceeded southwestward to about 11 miles west of Michipicoten Island and changed course to 130° Tat 14:45.  Winds now reported at 42 Knots from the Northwest.


Captain Jesse Cooper of the Anderson watches the Fitzgerald round Caibou Island and comment that the Fitgerald is much closer to Six Fathom Shoal than he would want to be.

15:20 November 10

At this time, the FITZGERALD was observed to be about 16 miles ahead, a position 9 miles south of Michipicoten Island. The ANDERSON changed course to 125° T at a position 7.7 miles southwest of Michipicoten Island, and reports winds coming from the Northwest at 43 knots.

The FITZGERALD was 16 miles ahead and slightly to the right of the ANDERSON's track line.

15:30 November 10 (Damage Reported)

FITZGERALD, then in a position northeast of Caribou Island, called (Radioed) the ANDERSON and reported:

"I have a fence rail down, have lost a couple of vents, and have a list."

The FITZGERALD further advised that she would "check-down" to allow the ANDERSON to close the distance between the vessels. The ANDERSON asked the FITZGERALD if the pumps were going and the reply was, "Yes, both of them,"

16:10 November 10 (More issues)

FITZGERALD advised the ANDERSON that both her radars were inoperative and asked that the ANDERSON keep track of the FITZGERALD and provide navigational assistance.


The ANDERSON changed course to 141° to a position 7.5 miles, 035° T from the north end of Caribou Island and observed the FITZGERALD 14 to 15 miles ahead and slightly to the right of the ANDERSON's heading flasher.


Fitzgerald calls for any vessel in the Whitefish Point area regarding information about the beacon and light at Whitefish Point.  They receive an answer from the saltwater vessel Avafors that the beacon and the light are not operating.


The Coast Guard station at Grand Marais, Michigan, advised the FITZGERALD, in response to her inquiry, that the radio beacon at Whitefish Point was not operating.


Captain of the Anderson testified 10-12 miles North of Caribou Island, seas were 12-18 feet. South of Caribou Island seas were 18-25 feet, and wind gusts 70-75 knots.


ANDERSON fixed her position 10.5 miles east of Caribou Light, determined that the FITZGERALD was 15 miles ahead and slightly left (east) of the ANDERSON's heading flasher, and advised the FITZGERALD that Whitefish Point was 35 miles from the FITZGERALD on a bearing of 144° T.

The FITZGERALD replied that she "wanted to be 2 1/2 miles off Whitefish Point," and appeared to be steering for that position.

17:00 - 17:30 (More details from the Fitzgerald)

A Great Lakes registered pilot onboard the northbound Swedish vessel AVAFORS, in a position near Whitefish Point, answered a call from the FITZGERALD and said that Whitefish Point Light was operating but that the radio beacon was still off.

During a radio telephone conversation between the two vessels, the master of the FITZGERALD apparently spoke to personnel aboard the FITZGERALD while the radiotelephone remained on the transmit mode.

The master was overheard saying, "Don't allow nobody on deck," followed by some conversation concerning a vent, which was not understood aboard the AVAFORS.

The master advised the AVAFORS that the FITZGERALD had a "bad list," had lost both radars, and was taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas he had ever encountered".


The ANDERSON advised the FITZGERALD that the FITZGERALD was working to the left of the ANDERSON's heading of 142° T and determined by radiotelephone that the FITZGERALD was steering 141° T.

19:00 (The last communication)

The Anderson is struck by two huge waves that put water on the ship, 35 feet above the water line.  The force was great enough to damage the life boat, and be lost overboard.

ANDERSON advised the FITZGERALD that she was 10 miles ahead and 1 to 1 1/2 miles to the left (east) of the ANDERSON's heading flasher.


The ANDERSON advised the FITZGERALD of northbound traffic 9 miles ahead of her.

Fitzgerald: "Well, am I going to clear?"

Anderson: "Yes, He is going to pass to the west of you."

Fitzgerald: "Well fine."

Anderson: "How are you making out with your problem?"

Fitzgerald: "We are holding our own, like an old shoe."

Anderson: "Okay, fine, I'll be talking to you later."


A snowstorm limited visibility and the snow also obscured the radar return. Once the snowstorm dispersed, the ANDERSON's radarscope was rechecked, but there was no radar contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald. Visibility increased this time; although lights on shore more than 20 miles away and lights of a northbound vessel 19 miles away could be seen, the Fitzgerald vanished.

The FITZGERALD, which should have been approximately 10 miles away, was not visible on the radar or with visual observation.

19:20 - 20:30

  • ANDERSON tried calling the FITZGERALD on VHF-FM radiotelephone, but got no response.
  • Next, ANDERSON try's calling the Coast Guard but is told to switch to another channel but could not reach the Guard frequency given.
  • 20:25 Coast Guard attempts to contact the Fitzgerald
  • ANDERSON calls the vessel NANFRI which was upbound near Whitefish and they stated they had no contact on radar of the Fitzgerald. 

20:32 ANDERSON notified the Coast Guard Group Sault Ste. Marie (aka Soo) that the FITZGERALD may have suffered a casualty, "I am very concerned with the welfare of the Steamer Edmund Fitzgerald."

20:40 Coast Guard (Soo) contacts Rescue Coordination Center Cleveland, Ohio who then dispatches and aircraft from Traverse City.

21:00 Coast Guard requests ANDERSON to reverse course and assist in the search for the Fitzgerald.

22:53 CG aircraft, an HU-16 was first on scene

00:05 November 11 First HH-52 Helicopter is on scene

00:08 Coast Guard Cutter "WOODRUSH" got underway from Duluth.

1:00 Second HH-52 Helicopter is on scene

02:00 ANDERSON and WILLIAM CLAY FORD arrive on scene

08:07 Lifeboat #1 was located by the ANDERSON nine miles east of the wreck site floating upside down and broke in half.  The other half was never located.

09:05 Lifeboat #2 was located, also by the ANDERSON

12:45 Tug NAUGATUCK was on scene.

23:50 November 12 WOODRUSH arrives on scene

November 13 Search continues until 22:12

November 14 U.S. Navy Aircraft, most likely this was a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion, joined the search using Magnetic Anomaly Detection equipment.  A contact was located and a site investigation observed an oil slick and flotsam.  

November 14-16 Side scanning Radar deployed from the U.S.C.G. Cutter WOODRUSH locates the Edmund Fitzgerald in two pieces close together.  Search is called off until better sonar equipment can come on scene.  

November 22-25 The WOODRUSH using equipment better adapted to the conditions once again runs the side-scan survey of the wreck site with the new sonar. 

May 12-19, 1976 WOODRUSH runs a third side-scan sonar survey.

May 20-28, 1976 WOODRUSH conducts twelve dives with the use of a submersible called CURV III.

Coast Guard Search and Rescue Vessels Involved

Coast Guard Grumman HU-16 Search Aircraft for the Edmund Fitzgerald crew.US Coast Guard Grumman HU-16E Albatross, s/n 7236 USCG, c/n G-322 Photo Courtesy of Terry Fletcher

Historic Background: The aircraft shown was first on scene and searched for any survivors of the Edmund Fitzgerald November 10th 1975.  It was based in Traverse City, Michigan from its entire service life from 1953-1977.

Current Location / Status: Retired and on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation, Pensacola, Florida - NAS / Forrest Sherman Field.  Home of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration team.

Retired: October 1977 HU-16E Serial Number 7236 departed the Traverse City, Michigan air station on its last flight to the U.S. Naval Air Museum at Pensacola Florida where it currently resides.

Two Sikorsky HH-52 US Coast Guard Helicopters were used in the search for Edmund FitzgeraldSikorsky HH-52 US Coast Guard Helicopter

Historic Background: Two Sikorsky HH-52 helicopters conducted searches 5 hours after the disappearance of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Current Location / Status:  Unknown 

Retired: Fleet retired in 1987

USCG WoodrushUS Coast Guard "Woodrush" Buoy Tender Ice Breaker

Historic Background: November 10, 1975 the US Coast Guard Woodrush was ordered from Duluth Minnesota at "full speed" through a "gale and high seas" and arrived on scene within 24 hours.

  • Served as a support vessel for the US Navy in 1976 to survey the Edmund Fitzgerald wreck
  • One of the first vessels to respond to the Exon Valdez oil spill in Alaska

Current Location / Status: Decommissioned after 57 years of service on March 2, 2001 from the US Coast Guard.  Sold to the Republic of Ghana to serve in that countries Navy.   Still in service today.  

Civilian Vessels Involved in Search for Survivors

Historical Background: Arthur M Anderson and Edmund Fitzgerald sailed together shortly after leaving separate ports in West Lake Superior. The Anderson helped with the Navigation of the Fitzgerald after the loss of both radars. Anderson was also the last to communicate and see Fitzgerald. The Anderson radioed to the Coast Guard about the potential loss of the Fitzgerald and assisted in the search for survivors.  The Anderson located both Lifeboats during the search but unfortunately no survivors.  The ship and crew were also awarded recognition for their bravery returning to Lake Superior and her fierce waves in search of any crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck. 

Current Location / Status: Still in service with the Great Lakes Fleet.

Historical Background: Helped search for survivors of the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck.

Current Location / Status: Retired and sold for scrap.  The Pilot house was removed from the ship before scraping and can be visited at Belle Isle near Detroit Michigan at the Dossin Maritime Museum. 

Historical Background: Communicated with Edmund Fitzgerald about the status of the White Fish Point Beacon and Lighthouse.

Current Location / Status: Unknown

Other U.S. Vessels Involved in the Search


Canadian Vessels Involved in the Search


Remembering The 29 Brave Crew Members of Edmund Fitzgerald Freighter

  • Ernest McSorley - born in 1912, (Captain).
  • John McCarthy - born in 1913, (First mate).
  • James Pratt - born in 1931, (Second mate).
  • Michael Armagost - born in 1938, (Third mate).
  • David Weiss - born in 1953, (Cadet).
  • Ransom Cundy - born in 1922, (Watchman).
  • Karl Peckol - born in 1955, (Watchman).
  • William Spengler - born in 1916, (Watchman).
  • John Simmons - born in 1913, (Senior wheelman).
  • Eugene O’Brien - born in 1925, (Wheelman).
  • John Poviach - born in 1916, (Wheelman).
  • Paul Riippa - born in 1953, (Deckhand).
  • Mark Thomas - born in 1954, (Deckhand).
  • Bruce Hudson  - born in 1953, (Deckhand).
  • George Holl - born in 1915, (Chief engineer).
  • Edward Bindon - born in 1928, (First assistant engineer).
  • Thomas Edwards - born in 1925, (Second assistant engineer).
  • Russell Haskell - born in 1935, (Second assistant engineer).
  • Oliver Champeau - born in 1934, (Third assistant engineer).
  • Ralph Walton  - born in 1917, (Oiler).
  • Blaine Wilhelm  - born in 1923, (Oiler).
  • Thomas Bentsen  - born in 1952, (Oiler).
  • Gordon MacLellan  - born in 1945, (Wiper).
  • Robert Rafferty  - born in 1913, (Steward).
  • Allen Kalmon  - born in 1932, (Second steward).
  • Joseph Mazes - born in 1916, (Special maintenance man).
  • Thomas Borgeson - born in 1934, (Maintenance man).
  • Frederick Beetcher - born in 1919, (Porter).
  • Nolan Church - born in 1920,  (Porter).

What Was The Edmund Fitzgerald Carrying At The Time?

By the end of World War II, much of the high-grade iron ore in the United States had been exhausted. As a result, Taconite became valued as a new source of Steel. Taconite is a manufactured raw material used to make all types of Steel. 

To create Taconite Ore, raw magnetite gets ground into a fine powder; the magnetite is separated from the gangue by strong magnets, and the powdered iron concentrate is combined with a binder such as bentonite clay and limestone as a flux. As a last step, it's rolled into pellets about 10 millimeters in diameter that contains about 65% iron. Finally, the pellets are fired at a very high temperature to harden and make them durable for transport.

After processing the Taconite, it moves by railcar to the Ore Docks. The rail yard stores different alloys of Taconite and can mix when loading the awaiting freighters. It takes about 5 days to navigate the Great Lakes and deliver to the Steel plants in lower Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. 

The freighters like the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sail from the Burlington Northern Railroad dock #1 in Superior, Wisconsin, loaded with Taconite via Lake Superior, Soo Locks, Lake Huron, Lake St. Clair, St. Clair River, and finally, the Detroit River.  Other routes going to Indiana sail in Lake Michigan instead of Huron and her rivers.

Unfortunately, the Edmund Fitzgerald never made it out of Lake Superior with its load of Taconite. 

The pellets are then added to Blast furnaces to make Steel. The cargo on the Edmund Fitzgerald was headed to Zug Island in Detroit. Coincidently, Zug Island is near the shipyard that constructed the Fitzgerald launched the ship in 1958. 

When the Fitzgerald sank, it had 26,116 Long Tons (58.5 Millon pounds) of Taconite pellets on board.

Storm Weather November 10, 1975

  • At 19:00 on November 9, the NWS issued gale warnings for the next day (expected winds from 34 to 47 knots) for all of Lake Superior.
  • NWS meteorologist testified that 'before the FITZGERALD sank, the average sustained wind speed was 45 knots from the northwest for a period of 6 to 7 hours and that these conditions would produce waves with a significant height of 15 feet.
  • Make sure and see the Weather on the day Fitzgerald sank in the content above.

Where are the Edmund Fitzgerald Lifeboats?

Both lifeboats which were recovered by the Arthur M Anderson the day after the wreck are on display at the Valley Camp Ship Museum in Sault Ste Marie Michigan.  Check out our Interactive Map for more details and related sites in the area.

What Happened To The Edmund Fitzgerald Anchor?

Edmund Fitzgerald Lost anchor displayed outside on Belle Isle Detroit MichiganEdmund Fitzgerald Starboard Bow Anchor

January 7, 1974 the Edmund Fitzgerald lost its bow anchor on the starboard side when raising to depart her Belle Isle Anchorage.  The chain separated when the anchor was being raised.  The mass of the anchor is 12,000 pounds.

The Fitzgerald’s recovered bow anchor is displayed at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle, Michigan

NTSB Conclusions On Why The Edmund Fitzgerald Sank 

  1.  The FITZGERALD's hatch covers were not weathertight and allowed water to enter the cargo hold over an extended period. This water was not detected because it migrated down through the cargo. There was no method provided for sounding the cargo other than visual observations, nor was there any method for dewatering the cargo hold with the vessel trimmed by the bow.
  2. Amendments to the Great Lakes Load Line Regulations in 1969, 1971, and 1973 allow Great Lakes bulk carriers to load deeper. This deeper loading increased deck wetness which caused an increase in the flooding rate through non weathertight hatches or other nonweather tight openings.
  3. The topside vents and fence rail were damaged before 15:20 either by a heavy object coming adrift on deck or by a floating object coming aboard with the seas.
  4. The FITZGERALD's hull plating probably was damaged; also the damage propagated and caused flooding of the ballast tanks and tunnel.
  5. Flooding of ballast tanks and the tunnel caused trim and a list. Detection of ballast tank flooding prompted the ballast pumps to be started. However, the flooding rate through the hull damage, which was propagating, increased and exceeded the capacity of the pumping system.
  6. The hull stress levels, even with a substantial amount of flooding, were low enough that the hull girder did not fail before the sinking.
  7. The force on the hatch covers caused by boarding seas were sufficient to cause damage and collapse. These forces increased as flooding caused a list and reduced the vessel's freeboard.
  8. Flooding of the cargo hold caused by one or more collapsed hatch covers was massive and progressed throughout the hold. The flooding was so rapid that the vessel sank before the crew could transmit a distress call.
  9. The vessel either plunged or partially capsized and plunged under the surface. The hull failed either as the vessel sank or when the bow struck the bottom.
  10. The availability of a fathometer aboard the FITZGERALD would have provided additional navigational data and would have required less dependence on the ANDERSON for navigational assistance.
  11. The most probable track line of the FITZGERALD, from west of Michipicoten Island to the position of her wreckage, lies east of the shoal areas north and east of Caribou Island; therefore, damage from grounding would have been unlikely.
  12. The shoal area north of Caribou Island is not shown in sufficient detail on Lake Survey Chart No, 9 to indicate the extent of this hazard to navigation, a contour presentation of this hazard would allow mariners to better assess this area and would help to eliminate the erroneous conclusion that there are isolated spots of shallow water, where in fact there is a large area of shoal water less than 10 fathoms deep (60 feet). 
  13. Insufficient water depth has been observed at some loading and discharge piers. "Groundings" of vessels at these locations induce hull stresses of unknown magnitudes and create the potential of undetected hull damage and wear.
  14. Although the National Weather Service accurately predicted the direction and velocity of the wind expected over the eastern end of Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, the predicted wave heights were significantly less than those observed.
  15. Loading information on the FITZGERALD and other Great Lakes bulk cargo vessels was not adequate.
  16. Great Lakes bulk cargo vessels normally can avoid severe storms. The limiting sea state for Great Lakes bulk cargo vessels should be determined, and the operation of vessels in sea states above this limiting value should be restricted.
  17. The presence of an EPIRB aboard the FITZGERALD would have provided immediate automatic transmission of an emergency signal which would have allowed search units to locate the position of the accident. The accurate location of this position would have reduced the extent of the search area.
  18. Installation of trim and list indicating instruments on the FITZGERALD would have provided the master an early indication of flooding that would have an adverse effect on the vessel. These instruments would have given an indication of whether the master's corrective action was adequate.
  19. The surface search and rescue capability of the Coast Guard on November 10 was inadequate.

Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot is a Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist who achieved international success in folk, folk-rock, and country music.  One of his famous songs was relating to the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck.  

Theories of How the Edmund Fitzgerald Sank

Hold Flooding

The theory of the cargo hold flooding and causing the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck in our opinion is highly likely.  The amount of water required to sink the ship would have been substantial.  The only place for this to occur would be in the cargo hold hidden in the Taconite pellets. 

Most likely this occurred due to the topside damage. 

Topside Damage

Topside damage investigators speculated to have caused a leak into the ship. The damage reported was that of the fence railing and two vents. Speculation of what hit these items refers to something heavy and floating washing over the ship's top. Also considered are the ships "Hatch Crane" and "Spare Propeller Blade." Neither item has been located or observed in any dive.

We suspect one of the heavier items onboard became loose on deck and took out the two vents and fence rails, as reported. What these heavy items' also damaged on the ship is unknown and not reported; no one will ever know. It's far more likely a heavy item would have damaged the boat this severely than a floating log.

It's reasonable to assume unreported damage to the cargo hold hatch area could have allowed the ingress of water into the ship.  The leak in turn lowered the ship over time and once the larger seas came aboard the ship was overwhelmed. 

Hull Failure

Hull failure is evident when looking at the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck. What is in question is when? The bow and stern sections would not be so close if the ship broke up on the surface. We believe the ship broke up when it impacted the bottom of Lake Superior. But no one will ever know. 

Rogue Waves

In the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck Timeline at 19:00 (The last communication)

"The Anderson is struck by two huge waves that put water on the ship, 35 feet above the water line.  The force was great enough to damage the life boat, and be lost overboard.

ANDERSON advised the FITZGERALD that she was 10 miles ahead and 1 to 1 1/2 miles to the left (east) of the ANDERSON's heading flasher."

We believe that these two "Rogue Waves" finally pushed the Edmund Fitzgerald underwater enough to cause the collapse of #1 & #2 cargo hatches; this allowed the lake water to enter the forward cargo holds, rapidly filling them and ultimately sinking the ship.

The Shoaling Theory

The Shoaling theory refers to running aground off 6 Fathom Shoal near Caribou Island. Six Fathom Shoal is 36 feet deep; hence 1 fathom is 6 feet. The thought was that Edmund Fitzgerald ran aground and damaged the bottom of the hull. Captain Cooper of Arthur M Anderson supported this theory.

However, dives onto the wreck did not confirm any visible damage. The Canadian government also performed waterway surveys and did not find any evidence of charting errors of the seaways or evidence of impacts on the course of the Edmund Fitzgerald.  

Who Was Edmund Fitzgerald? 

Edmund Fitzgerald PersonEdmund Fitzgerald

Edmund Fitzgerald the person was President of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  He was instrumental in bring back major league baseball to Milwaukee.  He is also the namesake of the ship Edmund Fitzgerald.  It was decided unanimously by the board of Northwestern Mutual to name the ship they were building in the name of their President. 

Fitzgerald would seem that he would rather not have this honor.  During the launch and christening it took several tries to break the bottle and the launch took extra time to set the ship free.  Once the ship was free is also splashed the 15,000 onlookers.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Why is the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck So famous?

The Edmund Fitzgerald wreck, in part, was made famous by Gordon Lightfoot, but the circumstances around the sinking and lack of witnesses helped build the folklore around the tragic event.

When someone or something disappears without a trace, often we are left wondering what happened. The Titanic was a tragedy on a grand scale, but it shouldn't have happened due to modern advancements in technology, seamanship and shipbuilding; the same can be said about the Edmund Fitzgerald wreck.     

Why does Lake Superior never give up her dead?

The water of Lake Superior is very cold.  Typically when a body decomposes the subsequent gas build up would make the body float to the surface.  This process is not able to occur before the body decays normally. 

Why is Lake Superior so dangerous?

Storms can roll over the lakes quickly; wind direction can change as storms go through the area. The long fetch of the surface water can build waves to ocean-going sizes. The cold temperature of Lake Superior is year-long. They range from 32 deg. F to a max of 60 deg. F as measured on the surface. Below the surface, the water stays much colder. The temperature changes between the lakes can often feed storms more energy.

Hypothermia is the most dangerous concern when navigating these lakes.

  • At water temperatures of 32.5 degrees, death may occur in under 15 - 45 minutes.
  • At water temperatures of 32.5 to 40 degrees, death may occur in 30 - 90 minutes.
  • At water temperatures of 40 to 50 degrees, death may occur in 1 - 3 hours.

Edmund Fitzgerald's 50th Anniversary of the Tragedy 

The 50th Anniversary of the Edmund Fitzgerald Wreck is November 10, 2025.  Like every year the ceremony will be held at White Fish Point Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. A ringing of the bell 29 times will be commenced and a 30th time for the 3000 lives lost on the Great Lakes.   

Who Sang the Song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?

Singer Song Writer: Gordon Meredith Lightfoot Jr. (November 17, 1938 – May 1, 2023).

Gordon Lightfoot released the song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" in 1976, shortly after the wreck in November of 1975.  He was a Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist who started his career in the 1960's.

In the song Gordon Lightfoot sings the folk song about how the Great Lakes transcend mere bodies of water; they embody the intertwined souls of two nations, with the collective dreams and challenges of their people. Both countries' lives and livelihoods flow through these vast expanses, guided by the unwavering bravery of countless souls - both men and women - who, with every wave, cast their stories onto these ancient waters. The haunting tale of the Edmund Fitzgerald, immortalized by Gordon Lightfoot’s melodic prose, is a testament to this shared bond. The song is not just a lament for a ship's tragic end, but a universal echo of our inherent fears and undying fight for survival. Lightfoot's words are a tribute to those who lost their lives and stands as a reminder of the power and unpredictability of nature and that even in the modern day, nature holds no mercy.

The Lyrics of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" As Originally Recorded

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship's bell rang
Could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
T'was the witch of November come stealin'
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin'
When afternoon came it was freezin' rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin'
"Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya"
At seven PM, a main hatchway caved in, he said
"Fellas, it's been good to know ya"
The captain wired in he had water comin' in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd put fifteen more miles behind her
They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the maritime sailors' cathedral
The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early

Courtesy of: © Warner Chappell Music, Inc

Gordon Lightfoot Changes the Lyrics of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" for Live Performances

In 2010 Gordon Lightfoot was shown evidence that made him revise is lyrics to eliminate the element of human error implied or actual.

The original verse goes (shown in red text above):

“When supper time came the old cook came on deck /Saying ‘Fellows it’s too rough to feed ya’ /At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in /He said, ‘Fellas it's been good to know ya.”

Changed to:

“When supper time came the old cook came on deck /Saying ‘Fellows it’s too rough to feed ya’ /At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then/He said, ‘Fellas it's been good to know ya’,” 

Kestner Clamp of the Edmund FitzgeraldMain Hatchway that was referenced, then changed in revised lyrics by Gordon Lightfoot during live concerts.

If you recall in our content above this hatch let go from the static overloads of water during the storm.  It was found caved in and sitting on atop the taconite payload.  We can only speculate this was the evidence Lightfoot was shown.   

Books About the Edmund Fitzgerald Shipwreck

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About the Lead Author | Sherry Trautman

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