Edmund Fitzgerald Sinking Theory

TitanicNerd

Member
Jan 18, 2014
215
0
26
I just put together a little sinking theory, so here it goes: The bow was on a huge wave and the stern was on a wave. All that iron ore in the middle was weighing the middle down, so the ship "bends" The bow sticks up, and the stern sticks up. She sinks in the position, but when she hit the seabed she split. The bow landed where it is now, and the stern twisted and fell upside down
 

James Garrett

Member
Sep 24, 2011
45
0
36
Metro Detroit, Michigan
The Arther M. Anderson's Captain Cooper did report that his freighter was hit by two very large waves coming from astern and that these two waves continued on in the direction of the Edmund Fitzgerald which disappeared off of the Anderson's radar 15 minutes later.

If your theory were to explain what happened to the Edmund Fitzgerald, the wreck should be very close to an area of Lake Superior where the bottom was close to the surface. The depth is about 530 feet at the actual wreck site. The distance between waves would also have to be on the order of 600-700 feet since the Fitzgerald was 729 feet long overall. I have been informed by my brother who has over 20 years experience on lake freighters that the waves are generally much closer together in a storm. Since the Fitzgerald was carrying over 26,000 tons of taconite ore pellets and Captain McSorely had reported that the boat had a list to port and that 2 ballast pumps were running, the ship was probably too low in the water for the waves to lift up the bow and stern. The normal loaded freeboard was 12 feet and the height of the hull amidships was 39 feet. At that moment the freeboard especially on the port site would have been less than 12 feet due to ballast tank flooding. Rather than lifting up, the waves probably crashed down on the Fitzgerald putting downward pressure on the hull.

There is an alternate theory to the Coast Guard hatch failure theory in which the Fitzgerald touched a then uncharted portion of the Six Fathom Shoal near Caribou Island during the storm and that the freighter started taking on water from that but continued moving until it lost buoyancy and/or the two waves reported by the Anderson administered the coup de grace.
 

TitanicNerd

Member
Jan 18, 2014
215
0
26
Very Interesting. Thank you for your input. So instead maybe a giant wave crashed on the Fitz and split her in two.
 

James Garrett

Member
Sep 24, 2011
45
0
36
Metro Detroit, Michigan
TitanicNerd, I did not think that would be the conclusion that you would draw from what I posted. Since (unlike the Titanic wreck) the two major pieces of the Edmund Fitzgerald wreck are very close together on the bottom of Lake Superior, it is very unlikely that the freighter broke up on the surface. The breakup probably occurred when the bow hit bottom (530 feet down).

The two large waves reported by the Captain of the nearby freighter Arthur M Anderson may have forced the already half-flooded Fitzgerald's bow too deep for her to recover. But before those waves may have hit the Fitzgerald, it is pretty clear that she was already very low in the water due to flooding of at least two ballast tanks. Since the Fiztgerald had a full load of taconite ore, these ballast tanks should have been empty of water. We know that for about 2 hours before the loss of the Fizgerald, that there was a significant inflow of water into the ballast tanks since Captain McSorely reported that "both" pumps were working and the there was a list to port.

I would recommend that you read the NTSB / Coast Guard report on the loss of the Edmund Fitgerald:
http://www.uscg.mil/history/WEBSHIPWRECKS/EdmundFitzgeraldNTSBReport.pdf

It has a fascinating chronology of the day the Fitzgerald sank and discusses the two main theories of why the freighter sank. Some people do dispute the findings of this report but it is still essential reading.

-Jim
 

James Garrett

Member
Sep 24, 2011
45
0
36
Metro Detroit, Michigan
Correction: I cannot find any evidence that the list Captain McSorely reported was to port as I stated earlier. Most accounts simply report "a list". The bow section of the wreck on the lake bottom has a 15 degree list to port but that says little about the situation before the sinking.

Interesting, there are some people including Frederick Stonehouse who after reviewing additional underwater footage of the wreck have a theory that the ship did break up on the surface. I would think that the burden of proof would be to show that the stress exceeded the hull strength and how both halves sank at roughly the same time and at the same rate. One possible support for this is that there are no watertight bulkheads in the cargo hold so whatever part of the hold was not already flooded would fill quickly with water.
 

Platnmz

Member
Nov 17, 2017
15
3
13
I have also read a theory that's a little different but feasible. As the Fitz was plowing through the waves of the storm, it would be extremely hard to see. The theory goes that they ran into a wave that lifted the stern up, dropped the bow, and went under water; at this point the crew thought they were going through a wave, but in actuality they hit bottom and broke up at this point. This would explain why there was no call for help, as the crew had no time.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Itsstillthinking
Dec 23, 2017
1,126
636
123
I agree, while the way in which the Fitzgerald sank/beak-up can be debated i think its general accepted that the Fitzgerald went in for a final dive for whatever reason and the crew never new it until the water burst threw the glass.

On a side note im also highly doubtful the cargo hatches where the key to the ships demise, lots of Captains who where in same storm as the Fitzgerald say that even if there where no clamps not much water would come threw. Not to mention since the guard rail was broken which means some catastrophic happened to the ships structurally that goes beyond a cargo hatch or two leaking slightly
 
  • Like
Reactions: Platnmz
Dec 4, 2000
3,239
483
213
The story of the loss of the Fitz is a lot more complicated than just a simple storm knockdown. It goes right back to the original design of that class of ships and continues through maintenance over the years and a large does on "blind eyes" on the part of inspectors and regulators. I know men who served in that ship and the stories they tell of the limber hull (eg. "she bent so bad in that storm I could read the name on the starboard bow out the port side window of my aft cabin") I have seen pictures taken inside the ratway leading fore 'n aft from bow to stern showing the hull so hogged you could not see over the "hill" in the middle. A lawyer for the company told me it was common for the ship to bend enough to stretch the electric power cables servicing the radar on the bridge. The cables would snap and have to be repaired at the next port, or that was his story. I've talked with men who crawled the double bottom just before that fatal year and found, in their words, as much wasted (rusted to loss of strength) steel than good. The Fitz was due to be in drydock for a overall rebuild that October. She sank in November. That was the result of the government and company agreed upon "just one more trip." Why the ship was loaded beyond safety limits imposed by the condition of the hull has never been fully answered. So, those men sailed on one last trip under a captain noted for being a "company man."

Ring the bell in that musty cathedral (i'ts not, I've been there, too) and thump your chests everyone involved about how brave the men who died that day. To me it was and remains a kind of government/corporate premeditated murder. That ship was not good and it was not true. It was overloaded and too limber. But, Gordon Lightfoot (met him on his sailboat, too) did a magnificent job with the song.

-- David G. Brown
 

Paul E Burke

Member
Jun 26, 2018
8
1
13
David, your information on the flexibility of the ship is interesting to me as I have not heard that before. I have heard that she was in desperate need of work and was know as a "wet ship" below.
There is an interesting video of the USS United States, now a rusting hulk on the east coast, but in the video you can hear the hull flex and groan under the waves in the port. Kind of creepy..
 

Platnmz

Member
Nov 17, 2017
15
3
13
Thank you guys for the information. Since I was a kid growing up in Michigan, I have always heard stories about Big Fitz, but the bulk of my research has been into the Titanic as it was the first ship I fell in love with. I have only recently started to branch out into reading about other ships and this was next on my list. Are there any "must" read books? I too love Gordon Lightfoot's song. It's sad that this tragedy was the cause of men's poor judgement and not doing what was right and having her fixed first. Accidents are hard to accept, especially when they really could have been prevented. The unfortunate thing, is that I'm sure this type of thing still happens. I hope we learn one day. Thanks again everyone.
 
Dec 4, 2000
3,239
483
213
At one point I considered writing a book on the Fitz sinking. Then decided against the project because the more I learned the angrier I became. My guts give me fits when I'm happy, so decided against disrupting them with my work. Honestly, I believe that company officials and Coast Guard inspectors should have gone to jail for at least manslaughter. But, rank has its privileges.

Think of all the breast-beating, weeping and wailing from the following organizations all of whom could have prevented the tragedy and did nothing, not one damned thing to prevent it:

The owning company
Knew of ship's defects, did nothing
Asked for "one more trip" from a ship that needed substantial steel work in the bottom

The United States Coast Guard
Allowed the ship to operate despite wasted steel in double bottom
Reduced season to October, then OK'd a trip in November, the most dangerous month on the lakes
Somehow overlooked that the ship was loaded beyond the agreed upon reduced cargo tonnage for good weather
Tried to blame the crew for their own deaths by a crazy "hatches not closed properly" theory

The sailors unions involved
The men who served in the Fitz were all aware of the ship's condition. I've talked to the only "survivor" who walked off in Ashtabula.

The officers and mates union
Should have backed the captain by protecting him from company recriminations for not sailing on a manifestly dangerous voyage.

The captain sworn to the safety of his ship, not the delivery of an extra ounce of cargo
McSorley was well liked ashore, but was known to take risks when sailing.

That's all I'm going to say on the subject just because it sickens me.

-- David G. Brown
 
  • Like
Reactions: Michael H. Standart

Platnmz

Member
Nov 17, 2017
15
3
13
That is absolutely disturbing. It's breaks my heart because of all of those poor families. It's hard to fathom that the men responsible, can't even man up and accept responsibility; even if it was a simple, "I am very sorry, we thought it would make one more trip, we were wrong". I can understand why you didn't write a book. I have a hard time even reading about the human aspect of the Titanic and Lusitania, let alone such a disturbing display of poor judgment and cover up.
 

Ada

Member
Dec 8, 2018
20
3
3
Ah the story of the ol'Fitz... It is one of the most surprising and mysterious of all.

Sure, the wreck has been found but did not provide all the answers. For the damage visible on the wreck, we do not know which occurred on the surface (and caused the sinking) and which occurred only as a result of the ship hitting the bottom.

The only thing we know for sure is that:
1. The disaster happened in a very violent storm
2. It either happened very quickly (as in seconds) or it happened in a way that incapacitated the crew. The crew had the technical possibility to call SOS in seconds, but apparently they never knew what hit them.
3. The ship passed its safety inspection not too long before the event.

Let me give you my spin on the incident (sorry, gonna be a long read):

The Coast guard theory is the one most commonly quoted - that water got into the holds because of ineffective hatches, bad gaskets etc. This is not a stupid theory and indeed there were ships that sank in the Great Lakes before because of the water flooding the holds in bad weather - notably the
SS Henry Steinbrenner in 1953. This theory does give a good reason for the sinking, but my problem is that it does not really explain the behavior of the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I think it does not account for the suddenness of the disaster.

Cargo holds flooding is not a quick process and the Fitzgerald already had both pumps going. In this scenario it seams feasible to assume that the whole thing would progressively become worse, the list would consistently increase etc. Simply put: The crew would have ample evidence to see things are going worse and worse, realize that a point of no return is approaching. They would also have ample time to send out an SOS. That's exactly what happened on the SS Henry Steinbrenner - the crew realized that the ship is gonna go down and they sent out an SOS.
It is conceivable that because Edmund Fitzgerald was both larger and had less reserve buoyancy, it somehow suffered though a creeping "buoyancy bleed-out" that escaped the notice of the crew until it suddenly reached a tipping point and went down so far nobody was able to reach the comms. But that does not strike me as the most likely scenario, also it would give a bad record of the captain and crew that they would fail to notice what is going on right until the very end.

The rogue wave theory - this one strikes me as the least likely one. Yes, it explains the suddenness but it does not explain why the Anderson which went through the same waves fared so much better. Both ships were carrying heavy loads and Fitzgerald was the larger of the two. I'm not trusting this one without seeing a good mathematical calculation explaining why the wave that sank the Fitzgerald was not a danger to the Anderson.

Shoaling Theory - Again, not one of my favorites. Explains neither the suddenness, nor do we see any evidence of that damage on the wreck.

Structural failure - I guess if I were to name a favorite, this would be it. It explains the suddenness, and the way the wreck was found.

If I had to make a speculation, I'd assume the most likely scenario would be that when the bow was down and the middle part of the ship was on the top of a wave, another wave forced the stern down as well. Because of the shortness of Superior's waves, the sip was pulled both up and down and fractured in the middle, but the bow did not fully brake away. Water rushed in through the crack, ship instantly lost buoyancy and went bow down into the water. On the way down the stern broke away completely under the strain, spilling the taconite left and right as it went down in a twirling motion. Which would explain why the bow is upright, but the stern is bottoms-up.
 

Bob_Read

Member
May 9, 2019
290
105
43
USA
It is interesting to live in an age when accidents no longer happen. There has to be some grand conspiracy where someone or some group must be responsible. Anybody who thinks these conspiracies have thin evidence is considered either naive or they are part of a cover-up.
 

Ada

Member
Dec 8, 2018
20
3
3
I rest my case.
Ok, maybe we mistunderstood one another. Did you interpret my post as supporting a conspiracy interpretation? That was not my aim.

I mean, it is possible that increasing the allowed loads and poor maintenance contributed to the disaster, but its far from certain. I have yet to see conclusive evidence for either.