The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is one of the most celebrated shipwrecks of the century, except for one thing: no one saw the ship go down on that wind-tossed night of Nov. 10, 1975.
One vessel, however, was nearby most of that night. The Arthur M. Anderson had been following the Fitzgerald about 10 to 20 miles back as they crossed Lake Superior in one of the roughest storms either skipper could remember.
With both radars knocked out, waves washing over his deck and his ship experiencing a "bad list," Capt. Ernest M. McSorley of the Fitzgerald, a 44-year lake veteran, had relied on the Anderson for navigation information. McSorley was also in contact with a pilot on the westbound Swedish freighter Avafors, who heard McSorley say to his crew at one point during a radiotelephone conversation, "Don't allow nobody on deck."
At 7:10 p.m., McSorley told the Anderson, "We're holding our own." That was the last transmission from the Fitzgerald.
Ten minutes later, the Anderson's radar scope showed nothing where the Fitzgerald should have been. Coincidentally, visibility increased at that point and the Anderson could see the lights on shore more than 20 miles away and the lights of the Avafors 19 miles away. But the lights of the Fitzgerald, 10 miles away, had disappeared.
No one on any ship or ashore ever heard a distress call. And despite a heroic search that night, in which several ships left safely sheltered anchor to sail into the teeth of the storm, and a vigil along the shore for months, no bodies were ever found.
The hulk of the Fitzgerald, named after the late president of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., was eventually found in 530 feet of water, its bow section sitting upright, the stern section nearby and upside down, with a field of debris between.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the Fitzgerald sunk when some of its hatch covers buckled under the pounding seas and water poured into the cargo of taconite, a semi-refined iron ore. The ship sank with little warning bow first, and broke in two when it hit bottom, the board said.
The board's opinion has been challenged by many on the lakes. The local experts say the Fitzgerald came too close to the shoals near Caribou Island. Although it would have normally passed over them easily, they say, the roaring seas slammed the vessel deeper than usual, hitting the shoals and weakening the hull, causing it to crack in two several hours later.
But no one knows. As folk singer Gordon Lightfoot put it, "She might have broke up or she might have capsized, she might have dove deep and took water. Superior, it's said, never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early."