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The Edmund Fitzgerald was launched on June 17, 1958, and was named after the new board chairman of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, whose grandfather and five great uncles had been ship captains. The company had commissioned her to be built by [Great Lakes Engineering Works in River Rouge at a cost of 8.4 million dollars. Even though the boat was almost 20 years old when she went down, she had just passed rigorous two-month inspection (required yearly) in the spring of 1975, and had passed the Coast Guard out-of-water inspection (necessary every five years) in the spring of 1974. She was certified as seaworthy and safe for operation. An Oct. 31 inspection uncovered routine seasonal damage to the cargo hatches, but the Fitzgerald was granted permission to operate as long as the repairs were complete before the 1976 season.

The day the Edmund Fitzgerald departed on her final journey, she was loaded with 26,000 tons of iron ore, bound for Detroit, Michigan. Because of high water on the lakes that year, regulations had been changed, allowing ships to carry more weight, and the Edmund Fitzgerald was riding over 3 feet lower in the water than normal.

On the evening of November 9, 1975, a gale warning was issued for Lake Superior. By early the next morning, the warning had been upgraded to a storm warning, with waves of 8 to 15 feet predicted. Captain Ernst McSorley of the Fitzgerald contacted the captain of a nearby ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, and the two captains agreed to travel north towards the Canadian shore of the lake where they would better be protected from the storm. By the next afternoon, the storm had gotten worse, and Captain McSorley wired the Andersonthat he had "a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged and a list." A list is when a boat is leaning one way. Later that afternoon, McSorley radioed the captain of another boat, the Avafor and reported that they had "had a bad list, had lost both radars, and was taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas he had ever been in." McSorley had sailed Lake Superior for over 40 years. At 7:10, when the Fitzgerald was asked how she was doing, the reply was "We are holding our own". At 7:15 the Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson's radar screen.

Theories about what made the Fitzgerald sink, and the conditions of her sinking are numerous. Most agree that she sank fast, not giving any warning or chance for her crew members to escape to life boats. The fact that she was riding lower in the water than normally allowed, and the leaking hatch covers have been blamed by some for the sinking. The most likely scenario seems to be that the ship had been taking on water for quite some time through the leaky hatch covers, but due to the nature of iron ore, the flooding wasn't discovered. Eventually the "bow pitched down and dove into a wall of water and the vessel was unable to recover. Within a matter of seconds, the cargo rushed forward, the bow plowed into the bottom of the lake, and the midship's structure disintegrated, allowing the submerged stern section, now emptied of cargo, to roll over and override the other structure, finally coming to rest upside-down atop the disintegrated middle portion of the ship" (Marine Accident Report S Edmund Fitzgerald sinking in Lake Superior). This sequence of events would lead to a rapid sinking, with no time to make a distress call or attempt life-saving operations. The conditions of the recovered lifeboats support this in that they appear to have been torn from their storage racks.

Expeditions to the wreckage, which lies more than 500 feet below Lake Superior's surface include the U.S. Coast Guard Initial Expedition in May of 1976, a trip led by Jacques Cousteau's son, Jean Michel with the famous ship The Calypso, and a ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) expedition in 1980.