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Listen to radio transmission on the night of the Edmund Fitzgerald's sinking

Nov 10, 2015

I had a friend I never met in person.

His name was Mike Simonson and he was a reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio based in Superior.

Mike and I spoke often by phone when he filed stories for the Great Lakes Radio Consortium – the predecessor of The Environment Report.

Mike had done a lot of interviews and research on the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. He spoke with many people who are still personally connected to the ship. He was our “go-to-guy” whenever we looked back on the sinking.

Mike died last year, so to honor him and the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Fitzgerald, we thought we’d bring back a story he did for us in 2005.

Listen and read Mike's story below. You can hear from the captain who was nearest to the Fitzgerald on the night of the sinking:

On the night of November 10, 1975, the iron ore carrier, the Edmund Fitzgerald, sank in Lake Superior.

Twenty-nine men died. The lake carrier was caught in one of the worst storms recorded on the Great Lakes.

Like the folk song relates, the November gales came early on Lake Superior in 1975.

A storm more fierce than even the most experienced lake carrier crews had ever seen hit the eastern side of the lake.

That night, Captain Dudley Paquette was shipmaster of the lake carrier Wilfred Sykes.

"We were really out right in the middle of the lake -- just huge seas, 30-35 foot seas. I was completely awash and I was on a super ship,” said Paquette. “ I was registering 70, 75 knots steady with gusts to 100. Huge seas, I was completely awash. Water was flying over the top of my bridge."

Like the carrier Wilfred Sykes, the Edmund Fitzgerald was a big ship, but early in the night the captain saw ominous signs of trouble.

The topside fence rails had snapped. The vents were torn off. The radar was out. And the Edmund Fitzgerald's captain, Ernest McSorley, had all the bilge pumps on, trying to keep the ship from swamping.

Thom Holden is the curator of the Army Corps of Engineers' Marine Museum. He says Captain McSorley was in radio contact with Captain Jesse Cooper of the nearest ship, the Arthur Anderson.

"We're holding our own, going along like an old shoe." - Last transmission from the Edmund Fitzgerald.

"The topside damage was an earlier report,” said Holden.

“After suffering this damage, Captain McSorley contacted Cooper and asked him to shadow him down the lake. It was really several hours later that what could be the last transmission from the Fitzgerald was received. Essentially Captain Cooper or the mate asked McSorley how he was doing, how the vessel was riding. He said, 'We're holding our own, going along like an old shoe.'"

In an interview from his retirement home in Florida, Arthur Anderson Captain Jesse Cooper said the memory of that night still haunts him.

He says Captain McSorley didn't let on that his ship and crew were in danger.

"I think he knew he was in trouble, but he couldn't spread the word because it would panic the crew,” said Cooper.

When asked how McSorley knew he was in trouble, Cooper replied:

“What the hell would you think if you had a hole in your bottom and were taking in more water than you could pump out?"

The sinking

At 7:10 that evening, the Fitzgerald disappeared from radar as it sailed into a snow squall only a few miles from the safety of Whitefish Bay.

"My gut feeling was I knew she was gone when I couldn't see her on the scope,” said Cooper. “Turning around, I hated the thought of going back out in that sea."

Radio communication from that night was recorded by the Coast Guard at Sault St. Marie Michigan. The Coast Guard was asking captains to turn back into the storm and search for the Fitzgerald.

"That sea out there is tremendously large. If you want me to, I can but I'm not going to be making any time." - radio transmission from Captain Jesse Cooper

  You can hear a distressed Captain Cooper answer the call.

Coast Guard: Think there's any possibility that you could turn around do any searching, over?

Cooper: Oh God, I don't know. That sea out there is tremendously large. If you want me to, I can but I'm not going to be making any time. I'll be lucky to do two or three miles per hour going back out that way, over.

Coast Guard: It looks like with the information we have that it is fairly certain that the Fitzgerald went down. We're talking now a matter of life and death and looking for survivors that might be in life rafts or in the water. We can only ask the masters to do their best without hazarding their vessels.

(Listen to more of these radio transmissions here.)

The U.S. Coast Guard rescue vessel Woodrush had left the Duluth port but it took 21 hours to arrive on scene.

Captain Jimmy Hobaugh says a life ring from the Fitzgerald popped up as they arrived.

"Of course, we searched for the three full days and it was rougher than you can imagine,” Hobaugh said.

“No matter how I turned the ship, we were taking green water over the top. If there had been someone there, I'm positive that my crew was good enough that we would've got 'em."

None of the men's bodies were recovered.

Among the crew of 29 was Third Mate Michael Armagost of Iron River, Wisconsin. His widow Janice says the families of the 29 men who went down with the Edmund Fitzgerald struggle with their loss.

"Nobody realizes that there are survivors. I mean, my kids' father is on that ship and my husband's on that ship,” she said. “And people just think of it as a shipwreck that happened so long ago, and it's not."

The families of the crew of the ship now say all they want is the final resting place of their loved ones to remain undisturbed by divers.

The bell of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was recovered and placed in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, Michigan twenty years ago.

*Wisconsin Public Radio has Mike Simonson's full two-hour documentary on the Edmund Fitzgerald online. Go here to listen.