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The SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank 48 years ago. Here's the story of its final voyage

Split Rock Lighthouse shines on 48th anniversary of SS Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck
Split Rock Lighthouse shines on 48th anniversary of SS Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck 00:23

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – It was Nov. 10, 1975, when an early winter storm complete with hurricane-force winds and dangerously-high waves sunk the SS Edmund Fitzgerald killing all 29 crew on board. Friday marks the 48-year anniversary of the sinking. 

Gordon Lightfoot's lyrics keep the Edmund Fitzgerald in the public conscience.

"Superior, they said, never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early," Lightfoot wrote.

This is one of many powerful verses in Lightfoot's 1976 Grammy-nominated hit "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Written mere months after the massive ore carrier vanished from radar screens, the song commemorates the controversial and somewhat mysterious sinking of the Fitzgerald. To most Midwesterners, this event is more than just a hit pop song. 

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The final voyage

The final voyage of the Fitz began on Nov. 9, 1975. The 40-year veteran Capt. Ernest McSorley departed Superior, Wisconsin loaded with 26,000 tons of taconite pellets and a mission to deliver it to Detroit's Zug Island. The Fitz weighed 13,632 tons when empty. 

Not too far behind the Fitz was the Bernie Cooper-captained bulk carrier the SS Arthur M. Anderson. In response to the reports of a severe winter storm front on the horizon, McSorley and Cooper agreed to take a northerly path across the massive Canadian shores of Lake Superior over their radios.

It didn't take long for the storm to make Lake Superior incredibly difficult to navigate. Low visibility caused by snow and high seas began to swallow the deck of the Fitz. 

The Fitz in distress

"Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have sustained some topside damage. I have a fence rail laid down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I'm checking down. Will you stay by me til I get to Whitefish?" radioed Capt. McSorley.

Bernie Cooper agreed to tail McSorley and the Fitz to the shelter of Whitefish Point. 

The Fitz had also communicated with the saltwater vessel the Avafors at 5:30 p.m. 

"I have a bad list, lost both radars. And am taking heavy seas over the deck. One of the worst seas I've ever been in," radioed the Fitzgerald.   

AP Was There Edmund Fitzgerald Sinks
A SS Edmund Fitzgerald in 1959 AP

The last communications between the Anderson and the Fitz came on Nov. 10, 1975, at about 7 p.m. At this point, the Anderson was trailing 10 miles behind the Fitz. 

"Fitzgerald, how are you making out with your problem?" asked Cooper.

"We are holding our own," answered McSorely.

This was the final radio transmission made by the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. There was no precise indication that the Fitz was sinking. It is estimated that it went down so quickly that Capt. McSorley wasn't even able to make a mayday call. The Fitzgerald had vanished and would never make it to safety. 

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The Coast Guard searches for the Fitz

At 8:30 p.m. Bernie Cooper reported to the Coast Guard.

"I am very concerned with the welfare of the steamer Edmund Fitzgerald. He was right in front of us experiencing a little difficulty. He was taking on a small amount of water and none of the upbound ships have passed him. I can see no lights as before, and I don't have him on radar. I just hope he didn't take a nose dive!" Cooper said.

Capt. Cooper and the Arthur M. Anderson went back into the dangerous storm to search for the Fitz and its crew. They were unsuccessful. The Coast Guard initiated a search for the missing ship. On Nov. 14, 1975, a Navy plane with a magnetic anomaly detector located the wreck site. There it lay, 530 feet below the surface of Lake Superior, seemingly ripped in half, the bow sticking proudly upright. 

The legend of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The rest of the story remains a Great Lakes legend to this day. The Fitz is the largest ship to sink on Lake Superior. The tragedy of the sinking was not the monetary loss of the cargo or even the loss of the liner itself. The tragedy was that 29 members of the crew lost their lives.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point, Michigan, hosts an annual memorial to mark this maritime tragedy. This year the 48th Annual Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial Event will be closed to the public but can be viewed here on their website. 

MORE NEWS: Historians race against time - and invasive species - to study Great Lakes shipwrecks

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