SS Edmund Fitzgerald - Possible Contributing Factors - Complacency


On November 10, 1975, McSorley reported he had never seen bigger seas in his life. Paquette, master of Wilfred Sykes out in the same storm said, "I'll tell anyone that it was a monster sea washing solid water over the deck of every vessel out there." The USCG did not broadcast that all ships should seek safe anchorage until after 3:35 p.m. on November 10, many hours after the weather was upgraded from a gale to a storm.

McSorley was known as a "heavy weather captain" who "'beat hell' out of the Fitzgerald and 'very seldom ever hauled up for weather'". Paquette held the opinion that negligence caused the Fitzgerald to founder. He said, "in my opinion, all the subsequent events arose because (McSorley) kept pushing that ship and didn't have enough training in weather forecasting to use common sense and pick a route out of the worst of the wind and seas." Paquette's vessel was the first to reach a discharge port after the November 10 storm; she was met by company attorneys who came aboard the Sykes. He told them that the Fitzgerald foundering was caused by negligence. Paquette was never asked to testify during the USCG or NTSB investigations.

The NTSB investigation noted that Great Lakes cargo vessels could normally avoid severe storms, and called for the establishment of a limiting sea state applicable to Great Lakes bulk cargo vessels. This would restrict the operation of vessels in sea states above the limiting value. One concern was that shipping companies pressured the captains to deliver cargo as quickly and cheaply as possible regardless of bad weather. At the time of the Fitzgerald foundering, there was no evidence that any governmental regulatory agency tried to control vessel movement in foul weather despite the historical record that hundreds of Great Lakes vessels had been wrecked in storms. The USCG took the position that only the captain could decide when it was safe to sail.

The USCG Marine Board issued the following conclusion:

The nature of Great Lakes shipping, with short voyages, much of the time in very protected waters, frequently with the same routine from trip to trip, leads to complacency and an overly optimistic attitude concerning the extreme weather conditions that can and do exist. The Marine Board feels that this attitude reflects itself at times in deferral of maintenance and repairs, in failure to prepare properly for heavy weather, and in the conviction that since refuges are near, safety is possible by "running for it." While it is true that sailing conditions are good during the summer season, changes can occur abruptly, with severe storms and extreme weather and sea conditions arising rapidly. This tragic accident points out the need for all persons involved in Great Lakes shipping to foster increased awareness of the hazards which exist.

Mark Thompson countered that "the Coast Guard laid bare own complacency" by blaming the sinking of the Fitzgerald on industry-wide complacency since it had inspected the Fitzgerald just two weeks before she sank. The loss of the Fitzgerald also exposed the USCG's lack of rescue capability on Lake Superior. Thompson said that ongoing budget cuts had limited the USCG's ability to perform its historical functions. He further noted that USCG rescue vessels were unlikely to reach the scene of an incident on Lake Superior or Lake Huron within 6 to 12 hours of its occurrence.

Read more about this topic:  SS Edmund Fitzgerald, Possible Contributing Factors

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