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We're Holding Our Own: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 10, 2023 3:01 am

We're Holding Our Own: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 10, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, as big freighters go, she was bigger than most with a crew and captain well seasoned...but on November 10th, 1975 she and her 29 man crew were sent to the bottom of Lake Superior. Ric Mixter of Lake Fury tells the story.

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Visit forward slash iHeart this holiday season and shop sound that's more than just a present. And we continue with our American stories. And on this day in history, in 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. Most of us, by the way, know about this wreck because of the Gordon Lightfoot hit single The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. But this story is more than a mere song. Today we're joined by Rick Mixter, who knows this story firsthand. He's been down to the wreck.

Here's our own Monty Montgomery with his story. When we think of the word lake, we often think of a calm, placid and small body of water. But the Great Lakes are anything but that.

People underestimate them. You know, it literally they think they're ponds. They think that they're, you know, they're much smaller than the ocean. And the truth is that the Great Lakes span over a thousand miles. You know, Lake Superior is immense. And unfortunately, it has these jagged shoals that unlike the ocean, it's confined. So these shoals bounce waves back and forth. And these confused waves on the Great Lakes tend to really mess with ships and make it very difficult to navigate in a storm. And the results of these confused seas have often been deadly. There's a huge argument on how many shipwrecks are on the Great Lakes because it's really hard to judge this. Most of the time we would put it to, you know, insurance settlements.

Let's look at Lloyd's of London or other places that paid out, but we don't know if they were recovered. If you said on the bottom, most people would probably throw out a number between 6000 and 10000 shipwrecks that are still on the bottom. But out of all these shipwrecks, there's one that has been etched into the collective consciousness of the people of the Great Lakes. The Edmund Fitzgerald.

And there's a reason for that. Fitzgerald is famous for two words, Gordon Lightfoot. It's literally a wreck that I think would have been forgotten if not for a Canadian songwriter who took the story and turned it into a seven and a half minute song that went to number two on the charts. And once that happened, it became enamored not only by the people of the Great Lakes, it became their song, played every November. Every time you turn on the radio, somebody plays it at that time because of the gales of November and to remember the crew.

Nobody argues that it's not Gordon Lightfoot. It is the largest shipwreck on the Great Lakes by a couple hundred feet. The Fitzgerald was 729 feet long and lost with all hands, which was part of the mystery, I think, that captivated even Gordon Lightfoot.

And that's why it kind of became a story. How in 1975 could you have a 700 foot freighter with 29 men completely vanish? Fitzgerald was one of the last of the ships built in Michigan, which we used to have an amazing shipbuilding prowess.

We were number one on the Great Lakes for years. Just a massive ship. I mean, it was the flagship for Columbia Transportation. So when it was launched, not only was she the biggest, but she was well appointed. She had the best skipper, according to Columbia, the best cook because they would entertain many of the steel companies like National Steel's president or, you know, bigwigs would come on board, bring their family along.

And, you know, it would have inside. JL Hudson Company, the famous Hudson store, had all of the appointments inside. So your beds, all of the furniture, which had to be custom cut to fit the canner of the floor of the Fitzgerald, which was, you know, slightly rounded.

They had to cut the legs of the beds to fit correctly. So it was the flagship. It was the ship that everybody wanted to be assigned to. And it was certainly the ship that gave out many rides to people.

It was also fast. They called it the Toledo Express because it made that run so quickly. And for the next 17 years, the Edmund Fitzgerald would continue to make that trip from Superior, Wisconsin to Detroit, laden with iron ore. And there was no reason to expect that on November 9th, 1975, her trip under the command of Captain Ernest McSorley would go any differently.

It was a Sunday and it was in Superior, Wisconsin on a beautiful day. And Jack McCarthy, the first mate, would be in charge of telling the guys, you know, all the loading, make sure that the ship was loaded evenly and which they would go underneath a gravity fed dock. And it would actually spill these round taconite pellets into the cargo hold, which they took 26,000 tons.

This is where Gordon Lightfoot was was wrong on a couple of accounts in his song. He said fully loaded for Cleveland, but it wasn't fully loaded. It was less than two thirds loaded because she was actually going to River Rouge that near the area to the Zug Island. And in order to get into that slip, she couldn't carry all of her cargo because she would hit bottom in the Detroit River.

So not fully loaded, not going to Cleveland, actually going into the Detroit area with a load of iron ore that would eventually become automobiles. And they take off into a beautiful day. And as they do, McSorley in the pilot house actually sees that a big storm is coming up. He's got a radio that he can get reports through and he's a weather ship. So he takes his observations and adds them to the weather reports to help forecasters try to develop where the storm is going to go. And it's quickly ascertained that he's going to get a storm that's going to come right through from Oklahoma all the way up to Marquette.

And so he starts to calculate how long that would take and uses the forecast that he's given as well and has to determine what he's going to do. But McSorley was a well-seasoned captain, and the coming storm likely didn't faze him too much, despite some of the reservations he may have had on the ship. McSorley had been a skipper that had been on the Great Lakes for years and years and worked his way up to the Edmund Fitzgerald.

He was very stern from the people that I talked to, very matter-of-fact guy. As we talked to a third mate in my documentary called The Fitzgerald Investigations, he remembered going through a Lake Superior storm with just 10-foot waves where the Fitzgerald would flex so crazily, unlike any ship he had been on. And he looked at McSorley and he said, man, should it be bending like this?

And McSorley said, sometimes it scares me. So literally he knew that this ship was different than other ships. He knew that it would flex in these storms. But because as a part-time job he did hull inspection, he was very well-versed in the strength of these ships.

And he unfortunately pushed the Fitzgerald way beyond its means. As I did the investigation documentary, I found the Coast Guard looked into it. They looked at 10 years at the Sioux Locks, the worst storms that ever happened up until 1975. And the one ship that kept pushing every storm and made it through the locks during those gales was the Edmund Fitzgerald. So he was a rough-weather skipper, he pushed the heck out of the ship, and it eventually broke because of it. So the Fitzgerald pushed forward, and soon they would get company to ride out the storm with, in the form of the Arthur M. Anderson, another Laker captained by Bernie Cooper.

And Cooper also is, you know, these guys are experienced meteorologists, they have to be, their lives depend on it. And they start to figure out when the storm will come and what they're going to do. As they pass Isle Royale, they've got a place that they can hide there from these northwest winds that are starting to build. They continue going, but they take the northern route. The northern route goes closer to Canada, jokingly some of the sailors call that the scenic route, because otherwise you might not ever see land.

As you go around the Keweenaw would be the last spot as you make that long haul past Marquette and make your way to the Sioux Locks and Whitefish Bay. But as they're going up, they go all the way past Otterhead in a second spot that they could throw out their anchor, because it's so close to the Canadian shore, the waves can't build there, so you're pretty safe, you could wade it out. But they didn't, they decided they were going to make it for Whitefish Bay, they thought that the storm would take an extra hour to get to them, and they were wrong. As they got past Caribou, it was the worst the storm could be, and they were in the absolute worst place they should be on Lake Superior, where those winds now could build the entire length of the lake and crash into the ship, and crash into them in the stern and on their starboard side.

So if they had any problems at all, they were going to get into real trouble there, and that's what happened to Fitzgerald. And you're listening to Rick Mixter tell the story of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, as he put it, how in 1975 could you have a 729 foot freighter completely vanish? The answer to that question, you'll hear it after these messages here, on Our American Stories. Who look at a 450 horsepower Mustang and envision where it could take them. Or see the new Bronco or Bronco Sport and think, what that thing needs is an off-road dirt bath. Because Built Ford Proud is more than just a set of words. It's a pact between us, our drivers, and what we can do together, and we'll do it. Built Ford Proud.

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That's Before we continue with our American stories and our story on the Edmund Fitzgerald, which was sunk on this day in history in 1975. When we last left off, the Fitzgerald was sailing into the worst storm on Lake Superior alongside another ship, the Arthur M. Anderson.

Let's return to Rick Mixter with the rest of the story. As the Fitz is going past Caribou, it realizes it has some kind of problem. They looked down the deck and they could see that at least one of their vents was missing.

These look like mushrooms that are on the deck and they're very large and they're used to equalize the pressure below decks. But of course Fitz has two-thirds of a cargo in there. Well, as he noticed that one of those is missing, he also finds out from his engineers that he's taking on water. So they're running their pumps to try to keep that water out.

He also mentioned something really unique. He says our fence rail is down and that has been interpreted in a couple of different ways. The fence rail could be the guide rails that are on the side of the ship that perhaps some piece of debris came on, smashed its vent off and also damaged that part of the rail. So he's radioing back and forth to the Anderson that he's got these problems and then all of a sudden mentions his radars are out. And he was worried because McSorley had noticed that out of Whitefish Bay there were several saltwater ships, including a big freighter called the William Clay Ford and another one that were trying to get out of Whitefish Bay. And he worried he'd get into a collision situation in the blinding snow that was happening. So he asked the Anderson to keep an eye out for them because his radars were out.

So he's going blindly into this storm. The Anderson is now trying to close the distance because the Fitzgerald, being a faster boat, was several miles ahead of them. The last broadcast came from Morgan Clark, the first mate on board the Anderson, who asked the Fitzgerald, how are you making out with your problems?

And the Fitzgerald, McSorley, answered back, we are holding our own. And unfortunately, in a blinding snow squall, the Fitzgerald disappears. It disappears from radar because the blinding snow also blinded the radar out. When it finally clears, Anderson can't see the Fitzgerald.

And now their job is trying to notify the Coast Guard that a 729-foot freighter is missing. The last time that you talked to him, at what time, that was over? I asked him how he was making out with his problem. He said he lost those vents and he had a lift and he said he was holding his own.

The last time I talked with him, he said he was holding his own. And that's the last time I lost contact after that. Nobody wanted to believe that the Fitzgerald was gone, especially the Coast Guard. So we're very lucky that immediately the Coast Guard started recording all of these conversations. So we actually have the conversations as the Cooper is trying to tell the Coast Guard that they have missed the Fitzgerald. So here the Anderson is now making the safety of Whitefish Bay after now 29 guys have been lost.

A massive steel modern freighter has been lost to the storm. And they call the Coast Guard, who tells them, we don't have a ship that can go out there. So the Coast Guard has to convince the captain of the Anderson that just witnessed this freighter sinking to turn around, come out of the safety of Whitefish Bay, and go back into that killer storm. And he definitely did not want to do that.

Right from the radio broadcast, we hear Cooper say, you know, there's going to be two of us on the bottom. He really believed going back out there was going to be a bad mistake, but he knew he was the only choice, so they went back out there. You know, at that time it was 60 mile an hour winds.

It was going to take him two hours to go 17 miles with those intense winds blowing right against them. And I don't think they believed that anybody would survive it. You know, with big 30-foot waves and water temperatures that were just above freezing, there really wasn't much chance. And unfortunately, it was a futile attempt.

But I think that that was the spirit of the lakes. You do what you can. First, make sure your crew is going to survive it. And then, you know, if you can safely do it, you go out there and make the rescue. And he did, to the truest tradition of sailors, you know, try to find those guys.

But unfortunately, you know, as we know, nobody survived and no bodies were found. Then came the task of actually finding the final resting place of the Fitzgerald on the bottom of Lake Superior. It didn't take them very long, so they used this robot called the Curve 3 to not only find it, but to secure it. The Curve 3 came out and they flew that down to 550 feet. And as they saw the bow, they noticed it was upright. But as they went around the stern section, which was broken over 100 feet away, they noticed that the lettering was upside down. And the Coast Guard investigators immediately thought the ROV, or the robot, was inverted.

And the pilot said, no, it's not. This is the back section, 200 feet of the Edmund Fitzgerald that was upside down. So the horrible act of it tearing apart somewhere in the water column actually flipped the entire stern upside down.

And the bow section is resting proudly upright on the bottom where you can actually see every deck in the pilot house as well. And there the Fitzgerald sat, a gravesite for her 29 crew, none of which were ever recovered. Immediately there were questions on why this modern lake freighter sank, and these questions still brew today. Did she hit bottom? Did she get hit by a rogue wave?

Or did her hatch covers cave in? Answers were hard to find as the wreck site was soon protected by the Canadian government at the request of the families of the victims. So very few people have actually seen the wreck.

But in 1994, Rick did. In 94, we took the submersible Delta, which had been famous for diving the Lusitania. And we went down in this two-man yellow submarine, and I was the third dive on the Delta expedition. When you dive a shipwreck, you get down to it, and if you're free diving it or you're doing it on scuba equipment where you don't have a submarine around you, you can actually go up to it and touch it. You know, the cold steel and the immense size of these vessels is what really becomes apparent to you. The Fitzgerald was surreal in the fact that I was down 500 feet. The light stopped at about 250. So it's pitch black beyond, you know, whatever you have on board your submarine, which we had lots of lights.

So it becomes very surreal. As you look through the porthole, you can see glimpses of the ship, but not the whole ship at the same time. So as we went past the name, the letters are, you know, over a foot and a half tall. I'm trying to remember exactly how big they were, but that's what first captured my mind was it said Edmund Fitzgerald, and it was horribly torn up on the port side. So the collision with the bottom had just ripped apart the spar deck from the side of the ship. And the name had been scratched up and beat up so badly that it took my breath away. And as we went around the bow and to see the bow was actually bent almost 90 degrees, the force of the storm was just incredible. And then the tiny details as you'd see a blanket hanging out of the pilot house or you go up to the top and you'd see the radars that were, you know, Panasonic on top.

It's a plastic, like just a little sliver of plastic ripped off and the wires were just there. So you start to piece together the story from that. Each one of those pieces not only awed me, but you know, you were just so excited to see this great shipwreck. And then when I came up, we actually had power left in the submarine. And so it was decided that the owner of the tugboat who we were renting from would would actually get to take his son down there for a look.

And we're eating lunch and we got a report from the submarine through the sonophone, the sound waves from the it's like a radio that goes through water. And we found out that they found a missing crewman. So we went from this incredible high of me just visiting the most famous shipwreck on the Great Lakes, the largest shipwreck on the Great Lakes at five hundred and fifty feet down to a horrible low of, oh, my God, there are twenty nine people that were lost there. You lose that connection, I think, because you're in the sub and you're safe when you're diving. It's really apparent that that these shipwrecks are you know, this is a final grave because you have this water around you and you've got to be so careful when you're scuba diving to do that. I never lost that connection, but I think I did on the Fitzgerald because I felt so protected in the submarine. But that immediately was erased when they found a first missing crewman, a body lying off of the bow of the shipwreck wearing a life jacket.

There's nothing more sobering than that. And instantly we were transported back to this is a grave site. The day after the wreck, the Mariners Church in Detroit rang its bell twenty nine times for each of the crewmen lost. And this ceremony continues in Michigan today with the ship's actual bow raised in nineteen ninety five and kept at Whitefish Point. But for the families of those lost on November 10th, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald is more than just a song. It's a tragedy that will always be remembered. For our American stories, I'm Monty Montgomery.

And great job as always to Monty Montgomery, a terrific job producing that piece and a real special thanks to Rick Mixter. The story of the Edmund Fitzgerald here on our American stories. Introducing Uber teen accounts. If you have a teenager, you probably drive them around a lot.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-10 04:27:17 / 2023-11-10 04:37:13 / 10

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