BELL AEROSPACE Inc.
Bend, Ontario, Canada
During the design development of combat
hovercraft for the U.S. Army, I handled the full size close tolerance lofting of the Glass
Reinforced Plastic, main air intake cowlings.
Followed by the designing and
supervision of the fabrication of the assembly jig to accurately unite the cowling sub
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Northern Ontario Sunset
Submersible Surveys Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
By Timothy M. Askew, Director, Marine Operations
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, Fort Pierce,
On November 10, 1975, the saga of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald began;
on her way from the Lake Superior port of Duluth, Minnesota, to Toledo, Ohio, the 729-foot
iron-ore carrier sank, without warning, during one of the most powerful storms ever seen
on the Great Lakes. The vessel sank so quickly that there was no time for a distress
signal. All 29 crewmen perished.
In July of 1994. Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institutions (HBOI)
research vessel Edwin Link and the research submersible Clelia surveyed the
wreckage in an effort to obtain more information as to why the Fitzgerald
foundered. The research team was made up of representatives from HBOI; the Great Lakes
Shipwreck Historical Society, based at Whitefish Point in Michigans Upper Peninsula;
and Dr. Joe MacInnis of Undersea Research Ltd. (Toronto. Ontario, Canada).
The teams objective was to photo-tape as much of the wreck as
possible during a three-day hiatus from conducting graph and videoscientific research in
the Great Lakes.
Events Leading to the Disaster
After onloading a cargo of 26,000 tons of taconite pellets
(marble-size, low-grade iron ore), the Edmund Fitzgeraldunder the command of
Capt. Ernest McSorleydeparted the port of Duluth early afternoon on Sunday, November
9. 1975. on an easterly course for Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and the Soo locks.
By Sunday afternoon, forecasters had predicted gale-force winds; early Monday morning,
winds had increased to 50+ miles per hour with seas excess of 20 feet. And by
mid-after-noon, winds were gusting at 60+ mph seas in excess of 25 feetwhich was
high enough to crash over the decks of the low-lying Fitzgerald.
The blizzard had virtually eliminated all visibility on the lake and
before it was over would produce winds with gusts up to 100 mph. which would churn the
waters into 30-foot waves.
The Arthur M. Anderson, which left Two Harbors, Minnesota, on a
parallel course, was ahead of Fitzgerald until 3:00 a.m. Monday when she was
overtaken by the faster Fitzgerald. The two ships traveled the north Superior
shoreline to avoid the full force of the storm, gaining the protection of Caribou Island
to Whitefish Bay where conditions were much better. By 1:40 p.m., the Fitzgerald was
9 miles ahead of Anderson and by 3:00 p.m. she was passing the east side of Caribou
Island trying to avoid a nearby shoal.
Radio communications between the two vessels shortly after passing
Caribou Island indicated that the Fitzgerald had sustained some topside
damagewith the loss of two vents and some railing-and that the ship indicating
that she was taking on water; however, Capt. McSorley told the Anderson that both
By late afternoon, seas were 25 feet and winds were 67 mph. At 4:00 p.m
Capt. McSorley radioed the Anderson to indicate that his two antennas had blown off
and to ask for assistance in navigating his way to the safety of Whitefish Bay. At 7:00
p.m., the Andersons first mate notified the Fitzgerald that another
ship, the Avaford, was close and would pass to the west. He also inquired about the
status of the Fitzgerald. Capt. McSorley replied, "We are holding our
own." Shortly afterwards, the Anderson lost sight of the Fitzgerald on
Events Following the Disaster
Precisely how it happened remains a subject of debate. The only things
that ever turned up were two lifeboats, two life rafts, some life jackets, and various
life rings. There was no indication that any of the survival equipment was in use by the
The next morning, after the storm had dissipated, the William R.
Roesch along with the William Clai Ford and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Woodrushdeparted
Whitefish Bay. The Roesch, one of the first ships out, was asked by the Coast
Guard to look for survivors. All she found was half a life boat, which was recovered and
later offloaded at Marquette, Michigan.
Shortly after the sinking, a target thought to be the Fitzgerald was
located by using side-scan sonar. This was not verified unti] the following year, 1976,
when the wreckage was identified and viewed by the U.S. Navys Curv lii, a remotely
operated vehicle equipped with video cameras. in 1980, the Cousteau Society, using Jacques
Cousteaus manned submersible Sou Coupe, conducted a 30-minute dive on the
wreckage before an electrical failure ended its mission. In 1989. Chris Nicholson and his
Deep Sea Systems international inc. conducted a series of dives with the low-cost ROV MiniRover
Mk ii to obtain additional video documentation for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.
Last July. HBOIs Edwin Link and the research submersible Clelia
visited the wreck site of the Fitzgerald. The opportunity to view the wreckage
from a manned submersible offered scientists. engineers, and historians a close-up look
with the potential to obtain information that could prove or disprove some of the many
theories as to how she sank.
One theory held that the sinking resulted from water intrusion by
towering waves crashing across the deck into the cargo holds through ineffective hatch
coverings or a break in the hull, causing the ship to become heavier, to lose buoyancy,
and finally to nose dive into a huge wave. The 1977 Coast Guard report promoting this
theory proposed that because an easing of cargo regulations over the years had permitted
heavier loads, the ship was riding very low in the watermore than 3 feet lower in
1975 than would have been allowed when she was launched in 1958.
Another theory has the Fitzgerald hitting bottom in a shallow
area off Caribou Island, causing the ship to break her back. This, in turn. wou]d have
allowed water into the hold. Even though the ship would be able to continue for several
hours, it may have finally been broken into two
pieces by the better than 30-toot seas that were breaking over the
A third theory suggests that the Fitzgerald was
broken apart by the pounding of the towering seas, as a result of existing hull damage.
During an earlier routine Coast Guard inspection, some major fore and aft steel structural
members were found to be already buckled and twisted and that damage was so extensive that
the Coast Guard ordered Columbia Steamship Lines to repair the ship~ however. Columbia was
granted two extensions by the Coast Guard (unconfirmed) since the firm did not want to
take the ship out of service during the peak of the shipping season.
A final theory states that the Fitzgerald was in one piece when
a series of three larger waves ("three sisters") drove the bow under with no
chance of recovery. Since the water was 535 feet deep and the ship was 729 feet
longdepending on the angle the ship went downas much as 150 feet of the stern
section of the ship could have been out of the water as she was going down. When this
happened. the weight of the stern section and the supposed fact that it already had
previous damage weakening the hull could have allowed the stern section to twist and tear
itself from the rest of the ship, sinking to the bottom and landing upside
downaccounting for the separation between the two pieces.
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution researchers were using the
submersible support ship Edwin Link and three-man submersible C/ella in
conducting scientific research in the Great Lakes during the summer of 1994. This
presented an opportunity to utilize a state-of-the-art manned submersible to document,
with high-quality video and still photography, the condition of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Clella, a PC-1204 submersible built by Perry Oceanographics in 1976. was refitted as a
research submersible in 1992 by Harbor Branch. The vehicle can accommodate two scientists
/ observers and a pilot, allowing excellent visibility through the forward acrylic
hemisphere. The proximity of the occupants to the bottom allows tasks to be completed in
areas of low visibility. Clella is outfitted with active sonar, still and
video cameras, and a seven-function hydraulic manipulator equipped with various sampling
devices. The ability to ballast the Clelia to an absolute neutral buoyancy created
an extremely stable platform for photo and video documentation as well as observations by
A key advantage to utilizing a manned submersible versus a tethered ROV
was in not having to use thrusters to maintain a given depth or position. Additionally, an
autonomous manned submersible was considered capable of more precise surveying of the
wreck site than a ROV, which tends to stir up sediments that have settled on the wreckage,
reducing the already limited visibility.
Upon arrival at the wreck site, HBOIs purpose-built rescue ROV
was deployed to determine whether any hazards existed that could inhibit manned
submersible operations. Several heavy lines and other loose debris on the Fitzgerald were
determined not to be dangerous to submersible
operations since they were lying flat on the deck or on the bottom.
Additionally, the condition of the wreck was determined to be solid, indicating no
deterioration from its 19 years underwater.
Paint, wood, metal, and even rope were in excellent condition. This
meant that if a vehicle was to touch the wreckage, it would not fall apart or collapse.
With a feeling of confidence, we launched the I ,000-foot-rated Clelia
to begin a series of six dives for the purpose of documenting as much of the wreck as
possible in three days. In addition to the submersibles externally mounted Photosea
TV3000T video and Benthos still camera, the hull of the submersible and its forward
acrylic hemisphere were utilized as a large camera housing enabling vidoegraphers to
obtain high-speed Beta close-up video of all areas of the wreck. The Clella is
outfitted with two 500-watt metal-halide H Ml lights that illuminated the area in front of
the submersible, providing almost-daylight conditions at 535 feet.
Some Remarkable Findings
The most remarkable aspect of the wreck site was the condition
of the glacial mud that was displaced by the bow of the Edmund Fitzgerald as it hit
bottomplowing a furrow as long as the bow section itself some 30 feet
deepindicating that the ship hit bottom with considerable forward motion and lending
credence to the theory that the stern section did not separate until the bow section hit
bottom. The displaced mud still has sharp edges and is covered with taconite pellets for
hundreds of feet around the wreckage. The fact that the pellets are barely covered with
silt after 19 years and that the edges of the displaced mud are not rounded off indicates
that there has been virtually no current on the bottom.
The stern section lies upside down approximately 200 feet to the north
of the bow section with a large debris field in between.
As the submersible approached the wreckage for the first time, a wall
of reddish-colored steel appeared in front of the vehicle. The 20-foot long Clelia was
barely a speck on the side of the towering hull ofthe Fitzgerald, an anxious moment
for the submersible pilots. The submersible then proceeded from the starboard side up
toward the bow with caution. This first dive provided the pilots with the logistical
information that enabled the series ofdives to proceed with the confidence of having been
On subsequent dives, very precise documentation utilizing video and
still cameras was accomplished and, by varying the location of the submersibles
lights, we were able to look inside the huge cracks in the bow section that began at the
main deck level on the starboard side and continued down underneath and back up to the
main deck level on the port side. Additionally, we placed an HMI light on a pan-and-tilt
and were able to direct the light inside the bridge through one of the forward windows.
The submersible was able to sit on the bulwarks directly in front of the bridge. This
enabled a videographer to obtain very precise video footage of the inside of the
wheelhouse. The ships wheel and engine telegraph were clearly visible. It appeared
that the telegraph was in the full-ahead position as the levers were pointed forward
toward the bow. An enormous amount of debris was piled up on the aft bulkhead of the
wheelhouse, indicating the ship had forward movement as she hit bottom.
Another area of interest was the position of the doors to the
wheelhouse. The starboard door remained closed and the port door was in an open position.
Upon close inspection. it did not appear to be forcibly open.
Some New Evidence
The stem post (the foremost member of the vessel rising vertically from
the fore end of the keel and approximately 4 inches in width) was bent almost 900 to the starboard side, indicating that the
vessel hit bottom with tremendous force. This was not previously observed.
During careful documentation of the 250-foot bow section, at least two
of the ballast tank vents were missing or damaged just aft of the bridge, perhaps the ones
that Capt. McSorley reported missing during a radio communication. Additionally, all but
two of the cargo hold covers were gone and the holds were so large that the submersible on
one dive descended into one, not realizing it. Inspection of the torn and twisted aft part
of the bow section revealed that the keel was twisted like a pretzel and folded back over
the cargo hold.
The area in between the bow and stern section consists mostly of debris
from approximately 200 feet of missing cargo hold. Huge pieces of twisted steel, hull
plating, and possibly cargo hold covers are scattered about.
The stern section lies upside down its huge propeller and rudder
virtually intact, testimony to its great power. The Fitzgerald was one of the
fastest ore carriers on the Great Lakes. One of the life boat davits and a large section
of line is wrapped around the propeller, providing evidence that the half of the life boat
recovered by the Roesch was cut in half by the propeller while the stern section
was sinking. This new information supports the theory that the propeller was still turning
while the ship sank.
Most of the crew is believed to be entombed in the stern section. While
we did not discover any bodies, a subsequent mission located a body near the bow section.
A future mission may eventually further document the twisted and torn
area of separation and perhaps recover the ships bell or some other identifiable
object to be included in the planned memorial at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical
Society Museum at Whitefish Point, Michigan.
On November 11th, 1975, the Reverend Richard W. Ingalls. the
rector of Old Mariners Church in downtown Detroit. tolled the church bell 29
timesonce for each crewman on the Fitzgerald. What was thought to be a
private ceremony was discovered by the media and has become an annual service memoralizing
the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I was privileged to attend the 19th annual
memorial service and meet a number of the family members and retired ships Captains
who provided me with a wealth of information.
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