JordonCooper Rotating Header Image

The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The Edmund Fitzgerald

I started reading about the IPO of Manchester United and I ended up reading about the Edmund Fitzgerald.  While there are a lot of theories about why the great ship went down, the best one I have read is that it was just not structurally sound.

When Bethlehem Steel Corporation permanently laid up the Fitzgerald’s sister ship, SS Arthur B. Homer, just five years after going to considerable expense to lengthen her, questions were raised as to whether both ships had the same structural problems. The two vessels were built in the same shipyard using welded joints instead of the riveted joints used in older ore freighters. Riveted joints allow a ship to flex and work in heavy seas, while welded joints are more likely to break.  Reports indicate that repairs to the Fitzgerald’s hull were delayed in 1975 due to plans to lengthen the ship during the upcoming winter layup. The Homer was lengthened to 825 feet (251 m) and placed back in service by December 1975, not long after the Fitzgerald foundered. In 1978, without explanation, Bethlehem Steel Corporation denied permission for the chairman of the NTSB to travel on the Homer. The Homer was permanently laid up in 1980 and broken for scrap in 1987.

Retired GLEW naval architect Raymond Ramsey, one of the design team on the hull of the Fitzgerald,  reviewed her increased load lines, maintenance history, along with the history of long ship hull failure and concluded that the Fitzgerald was not seaworthy on November 10, 1975. He stated that planning the Fitzgerald to be compatible with the constraints of the St. Lawrence Seaway had placed her hull design in a "straight jacket".  The Fitzgerald’s long ship design was developed without the benefit of research, development, test, and evaluation principles while computerized analytical technology was not available at the time she was built. Ramsey noted that the Fitzgerald’s hull was built with an all-welded (instead of riveted) modular fabrication method, which was used for the first time in the GLEW shipyard. Ramsey concluded that increasing the hull length to 729 feet (222 m) resulted in a L/D slenderness ratio (the ratio of the length of the ship to the depth of her structure)  that caused excessive multi-axial bending and springing of the hull, and that the hull should have been structurally reinforced to cope with her increased length.

Former crew statements seem to back this theory up.

The stress fracture theory was supported by the testimony of former crewmen. Former Second Mate Richard Orgel, who served on the Fitzgerald in 1972 and 1973, testified that "the ship had a tendency to bend and spring during storms ‘like a diving board after somebody has jumped off.’" Orgel was quoted as saying that the loss of the Fitzgerald was caused by hull failure, "pure and simple. I detected undue stress in the side tunnels by examining the white enamel paint, which will crack and splinter when submitted to severe stress." George H. "Red" Burgner, theFitzgerald‘s Steward for ten seasons and winter ship-keeper for seven years, testified in a deposition that a "loose keel" contributed to the vessel’s loss. Burgner further testified that "the keel and sister kelsons were only ‘tack welded’" and that he had personally observed that many of the welds were broken.

And then there is this picture of another Great Lake’s freighter Algoport breaking up while being towed to China for conversion.  High seas just bent the freighter in half.

M/V Algoport sinking

M/V Algoport sinking

M/V Algoport sinking

It’s amazing reading through all of the theories how much contradictory information there is.  Rouge waves, clamps not holding, bad seamanship, hitting a shoal, structural failure.  All are possibilities and we still don’t know what really happened.

Comments are closed.