Loss and Search

History of the Edmund Fitzgerald–Loss and Search

At around 7:25 p.m., on the 10th of November, 1975, the snow which had all but eliminated visibility on Lake Superior lifted. The lights of three other ships could be seen by Captain Jesse Cooper of the Arthur M. Anderson. The lights of the Edmund Fitzgerald, however, could not; nor could he locate her on his radar scope. His last view of the great ship was of the icon indicating its location on his radar as it sailed into sea echo.

Despite repeated hails, the Fitzgerald did not reply. She did not appear on radar. She was not in the safety of Whitefish Bay. The horrible conclusion was becoming all too clear: the Edmund Fitzgerald was no longer on the seas.

Cooper called the Coast Guard at 7:39 p.m. Advised to switch to another frequency, he was unable to hail the Coast Guard. He repeated his fruitless attempts to hail the Fitzgerald and was able to contact the Coast Guard at 8:32 p.m. He spoke to Radioman Philip Branch, who was, at the time, concerned with the loss of a 16 foot boat. Cooper asked Branch to contact the commercial marine radio station WLC Rogers City, which he did. He was, however, advised that WLC Rogers City was having antenna problems and that they would get back to him. During this time, Branch, like Cooper, continued to try to raise the Edmund Fitzgerald on the radio.

It was not until 9:10 p.m. that the Coast Guard acknowledged the unthinkable, that the Edmund Fitzgerald, one of the largest and most seaworthy of vessels might be lost. Rescue efforts were begun. At 9:25 p.m., the Coast Guard Cutter Naugatuck was to move to the scene of the last reported position of the Fitzgerald. The 180-foot Woodrush was ordered to the search area at 9:30 p.m. Aircraft were also ordered to the search area. All the while, the severe weather system which had just claimed the 729-foot ore freighter was continuing.

The fixed wing HU-16 arrived on the scene at 10:53 p.m., and began it search/rescue operations. At 1:00 a.m. on November 11, 1975, two helicopters, HU-52’s, one equipped with a 3.8 million candlepower search light, arrived. The searches proved fruitless. No bodies were found, nor was any debris noted.

The response of the water-borne segment of the Coast Guard was, unhappily, not as efficient. The only two available ships to the Coast Guard were the tug Naugatuck and the 180-foot cutter Woodrush. The Naugatuck was never designed to be in the open sea of Lake Superior if winds exceeded 60 knots, which they did on this evening. To further inhibit the Naugatuck from assisting, she experienced mechanical difficulties and was unable to depart until 9:00 a.m. the following morning. Only the Woodrush would be able to respond, and she would take almost 24 hours to arrive at the last known location of the Fitzgerald. The lack of vessels available to the Coast Guard would later become a source of much controversy.

The only other ship available to assist in the search for survivors was the Arthur M. Anderson. Answering the call to aid fellow mariners, Captain Cooper bravely turned his ship around, risking her to the same severe strains that had taken the Fitzgerald, and began searching the dangerous waters for survivors. The courage of Captain Cooper and his crew cannot be understated. Captain Cooper would go on to praise his crew. Knowing that they have doubts concerning heading back, they nonetheless performed marvelously. “I could not have had a better group of people if I had hand picked them myself,” he would later write.

Other vessels responded to the call for assistance, some on the same day, others on the next, each risking the same fate that had befallen the Fitzgerald. The U.S. vessels William Clay Ford and Hilda Marjanne left for the scene. The Marjanne, however, found conditions to be too severe for that ship, and she returned to safe harbor. The Ford arrived at 2:00 a.m., and remained until morning.

On the morning of the 11th, many more vessels would arrive, in the hopes of finding their fallen comrades. These vessels would include the Roger Blough, Wilfred Sykes, Reserve, Armco, John Dykstra, and William R. Roesch. Canadian vessels would include the Frontenac, Joan O. McKellar, Murray Bay and James D.

By sundown on the 11th, however, it became apparent that no one had survived the disaster. Two damaged lifeboats were recovered by the Anderson, miles from the last reported location of the Fitzgerald. Two other inflatable rafts were also recovered, one by the William R. Roesch and the other by the James D. These rafts, originally located on the stern and bow of the Fitzgerald, are designed to float free of a sinking ship. The rafts were empty and showed no signs of attempted boarding. One of these rafts is currently on display at the Soo Marine Museum.

On the 14th, using a Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD) system, the Coast Guard was able to locate the wreck of the Fitzgerald. An oil slick was also spotted, confirming the ultimate fate of the great ship. Tweny nine men had died with her.

Marshall, J.R. (1992). Shipwrecks of Lake Superior. Duluth, Minnesota: Lake Superior Port Cities, Inc.

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