In the Outer World are freshwater lakes so large that you cannot see the other side – not even the short way, not even on the clearest day. There are lakes so large that vast ships, more than two hundred meters long, can vanish in them. On this day (10 November) in 1975, that is what happened to the SS Edmund Fitzgerald and its 29 crewmen.
The Fitzgerald and the SS Arthur Anderson were running together, maintaining radio and radar contact through a forecasted storm. What is known about the Fitzgerald’s end comes mainly from the Anderson crew and from later discovery and examination of the wreck.
(Here is a satellite image of Lake Superior, which forms part of Canada’s southern coast. This one lake holds 10% of all the fresh water on the surface of the Earth.)
The size of the waves that wind can raise on a lake depends partly on the “fetch”, the distance that the wind can blow unobstructed over water. The Fitzgerald and the Anderson were trying to reach Whitefish Bay at the southeastern end of the lake. If I tell you that the hurricane-force winds were from the northwest, perhaps you will see the problem. Two hundred miles is a great deal of water to whip up. Ships in the area reported seas of 30 feet and more, in winds of 70 knots gusting to 100.
A crewman on the Anderson recalls “green seas” over the cargo section of the ship – that is, not merely waves splashing upon it, but lake water washing clear over it. On the superstructure were big stacks serving as air intakes for the ship’s generators – water was even coming down those, so that they had to throw tarps on the generators to keep them from flooding. The Anderson’s Captain Jesse B. (“Bernie”) Cooper recalls being hit (and damaged) by a set of two or three especially huge waves some time near 7:00 that night. It is possible to estimate the speed of such waves, if you know the wind direction and can time the swells; and from this Capt. Cooper reckons that the Fitzgerald would have been hit by those same waves about ten minutes after the Anderson. Capt. Cooper’s last contact with Capt. Ernest McSorley of the Fitzgerald was at 7:15, with Capt. McSorley reporting no new problems (but he had earlier reported both radars failed, the ship listing and with both bilge pumps running.)
In water that rough, I don’t know whether it makes any sense to ask whether the Fitzgerald “capsized” or was “swamped” or “pushed under”, or any other specific term. The seas were higher than the ship and the water got on top and the ship got underneath it, and never had time to send a mayday call. She weighed 23,000 tonnes empty and was carrying 26,000 tonnes of taconite (iron ore), and hit the bottom hard enough to break in two.
I am not talking about long bygone days, but about people many of whom would be alive now, if they hadn’t died that night.
There are memorial services every Nov. 10 near the Whitefish Point lighthouse, and at the Mariner’s Church in Detroit. I hope to attend, one day.
The SS Arthur Anderson, which led the search for survivors, is still in regular service. Capt. Cooper passed away in 1993.