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The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald - 38 Years Later

November 8, 2013

By WeatherBug Sr. Meteorologist, John Bateman

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One of the most infamous shipwrecks in the United States happened this weekend back in 1975 - the wreck of the Great Lakes freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald. The culprit? A massive storm that moved over the Lakes and battered the region with hurricane-force winds, colossal waves, and near-zero visibility.

Here`s a look at these monster storms and the fate of the Edmund Fitzgerald:

They have been called many things, "November Gales," "November Witches," and "Freshwater Furies." In reality, they are giant mid-latitude storms that resemble the characteristics of a hurricane over land.

The season for these monsters is autumn, when cold, Canadian air clashes with relatively warm, moist air over the U.S. Once over the Lakes, the relatively warm water adds the final ingredient to an explosive mixture, and a "Great Lakes Hurricane" is born. They can produce wind gusts higher than 100 mph, drop several inches of rain and snow, and cause mammoth "rogue" waves on the Great Lakes. These killer storms happen with enough regularity that they are known as a bane for the people living along the Lakes, and a foe of the ships that cross them.

The most infamous of these storms happened 38 years ago this weekend, and caused the sinking of a freighter named "The Edmund Fitzgerald."

The Edmund Fitzgerald was a Great Lakes freighter that was launched in 1958, and at that time, it was one of the largest ships operating. It had a total capacity of 24,000 tons and measured 729 feet.

On November 10, 1975, the ship was travelling on Lake Superior with a full load of iron ore pellets, on its way to Zug Island, near Detroit. It had been fighting one of those legendary fall storms all day, with wind gusts of 100 mph and 35-foot waves. On the afternoon of the 10th, it recorded an 86 mph wind gust and poor visibility due to heavy snow. With waves still upwards of 30 ft, the captain reported that the Edmund Fitzgerald was damaged and taking on water. The last communication was a report from the captain saying, "We are holding our own." At this point the freighter was just northwest of Whitefish Point. A few minutes later, it apparently sank without sending a distress signal. A search and rescue team was deployed but all that was found was some debris and life rafts. The ship and its crew of 29 men were lost.

To this day, the ship sits broken in two at the bottom of Lake Superior. Many theories abound as to what caused the freighter to sink, from a massive wave bringing it down, to a stress fracture in the hull, but what really happened may never be fully known. Of all the wrecks in the Great Lakes over the years, the Edmund Fitzgerald is still the largest to ever sink in the frigid waters. The tragedy rocked the shipping world and inspired a mournful song by Gordon Lightfoot titled, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". The wreck and its enduring legacy still bring the Great Lakes shipping community together each year to commemorate its anniversary.

Since the sinking, safety regulations have been enacted to save lives and protect property in Great Lakes shipping lanes. Those precautions, plus a healthy respect for Mother Nature, have helped keep these storms from being the killers they once were.

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Story image: The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, courtesy of NOAA, and the National Weather Service Forecast Office, Marquette, Mich.

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