In Episode 60, Emily talks about an act of God so terrible it impacted the entire world – the 1960 Valdivia, Chile Earthquake. The only earthquake to reach a 9.5 on the Richter Scale. Then Rachel takes us to Paradise, Michigan to talk about the tragic tale of two ships heading out on Lake Superior and only one returning. This is the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a ship that was lost with her entire crew of 29 men on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975.
Story 1: The Valdivia Earthquake
Today we’re talking about utter devastation.
We’re talking about an act of God that – in a moment – changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. We’re talking about… the Valdivia Earthquake of 1960, the most powerful earthquake in recorded history.
Before we dive into talking about Valdivia I want to school you all on some sciency shit.
First, how the EFF do earthquakes happen??
The earth has four major layers: the inner core, outer core, mantle and crust. The crust and the top of the mantle make up the “skin” of Earth.
But this skin is not all in one piece – it is like a skin puzzle. Ed Gein would love it.
Essentially it’s this big puzzle that shifts and moves around, slowly sliding past one another and bumping into each other. We call these puzzle pieces tectonic plates, and there are 8 continental plates (so on land) and 9 oceanic plates. These make up the skin of the earth. These plates have edges of course and those edges are called the plate boundaries. The plate boundaries are where faults happen, and earthquakes happen on these faults.
Here’s how that works. Since the edges of the plates are rough, they get stuck while the rest of the plate keeps moving. Finally, when the plate has moved far enough, the edges unstick on one of the faults and there is an earthquake.
So, sometimes a plate slip is super small, it was just a little tiny bit of tension. Sometimes though… it’s a big plate slip and it results in a big daddy earthquake. So, the size of the slip is measured quantitatively by something called the Richter scale. Get ready for some science up in here. Strap in.
There are actually like 10 different ways to measure earthquakes but Richter is the one that is most commonly used. It measures the amount of energy released during an earthquake and it’s measured by something called a seismograph. Now, a seismograph is kind of like a super-sensitive pendulum that records the shaking of the Earth. There’s this whole logarithm that calculates the size of the shakes and it is very very very complicated and our stupid, tiny right-brain brains could not understand it. So I’m going to skip that part and just give you the basics.
A lot of times people think that the Richter scale is a 1 – 10 kind of thing, and it is but it isn’t. It’s actually an open-ended scale, aka there is no actual limit to how small or large an earthquake might be. For example, there are FREQUENTLY earthquakes with negative magnitudes, but they are so small that humans can’t feel them. At the other end of the spectrum, technically, earthquakes could go up over 10…
BUT remember the magnitude of an earthquake is related to the length of the fault on which it occurs and no fault long enough to generate a magnitude 10 earthquake is known to exist. If it did, it would extend around most of the planet. So, the largest known fault line is like 1500 miles long and to reach a 10 magnitude earthquake it would have to be like 1800-1900 miles long. So…unless something happens and fault lines connect, there just isn’t a fault line big enough for an earthquake bigger than 9.
So, I’m throwing around a lot of science. A lot of numbers. Measuring Man is quivering with fear worrying that we are going to completely misunderstand all of this. So, let’s put it in more tangible terms and wrap our heads around what each different level of earthquake might be like, here’s a way to understand it:
- Less than 2 can’t be detected by anything other than a seismograph, so who even cares about it. Not me.
- 2-3 would result in a hanging lamp swinging a little bit
- 3-4 would be comparable to like… the vibration of a passing truck
- 4-5 would likely cause items to fall off shelves and windows to break
- 5-6 starts getting bigger. plaster might be falling off walls and furniture might move
- 6-7 severe damage to poorly built buildings and some damage to well-built structures
- 7-8 buildings are going to be displaced from their foundations, underground pipes are going to break and there may even be cracks in the earth
- 8-9 Bridges are tumbling. There are very few structures that are left standing
- 9 and over is total destruction. You could look at the ground and see waves. In the ground. Like it was water. But it’s not. It’s ground.
Basically. That escalated quickly. And it does sound like moving from a 4 – 5 is kind of drastic in terms of how bad it is… but fun fact, every number you go up on the Richter scale is actually multiplying the magnitude by 10!
So, remember when I said that there aren’t really faults that should be able to produce an earthquake higher than a 9? Well, rules are made to be broken amiright? I am right because Mother Nature agrees. There have been a handful of instances where an earthquake has reached above a 9. Five to be exact.
In 1952 in Kamchatka Russia a 9.0 quake. Then in 2011 near the east coast of Honshu Japan a 9.1 quake. Again, in 2004 off the coast of Sumatra another 9.1 quake. In 1964 the Good Friday Earthquake in Alaska came in at a 9.2.
And, the worst quake in the history of man, the Valdivia Earthquake, which happened on May 22, 1960 weighing in at 9.5 magnitude on the Richter scale. Nine. Point. Five.
This enormous earthquake struck 60 years ago, off the western coast of South America. This region, by the way, is part of the “Ring of Fire” – which is not just a Johnny Cash song, but also one of the most seismically active regions in the world.
The rumbling started on the afternoon of May 22, 1960. A guy named Sergio Barrientos, was there and he was only about 8 years old at the time, but he recounted the story and it sounds intense. He remembers walking down a street when the ground started to shake…
He looked up and the electrical wires on the telephone poles were swinging back and forth so violently that they slapped each other from opposite sides of the street.
Chimneys were falling down off the roofs of the houses. The ground shook so hard that Sergio was knocked off his feet … and for TEN MINUTES he was not able to stand up. This is not a surprise because about 1,000 miles of fault line was rupturing at that time. And we’re not talking about just a single massive earthquake. There were about nine foreshocks and aftershocks that were bigger than 7 magnitude. Seven magnitudes are HUGE. So they had 10 HUGE earthquakes all at once that day. Not only that, but weaker aftershocks actually continued for a MONTH.
That series of foreshocks was actually somewhat of a blessing because many people ran outside the buildings they were in, so when the BIG one hit they weren’t inside. Which is good because buildings can’t stand during that kind of violent shaking.
When the earthquake hit, about 145,000 homes were destroyed or damaged and half of the buildings in Valdivia were rendered uninhabitable.
At Corral, the main port of Valdivia, the water level rose 13 feet before it began to recede. About an hour after the quake a 26 foot wave struck the Chilean coast and then ten minutes after that another 33 foot wave hit.
Landslides also destroyed buildings, deepened local rivers, and created wetlands. Extensive areas of the city were flooded. The electricity and water systems of Valdivia were totally destroyed. Witnesses reported underground water flowing up through the soil. Despite the fact that it had rained heavily the day before, the city was suddenly without a water supply. And they couldn’t’ turn to the river either because it turned straight up brown with sediment from landslides and was full of floating debris, including entire houses.
One woman who survived said that after the earthquake they all just started running toward the hills because they knew what was coming next (the tsunami) and that’s the only reason why she survived. She said a lot of people drowned because they didn’t leave the coastal area after the earthquake.
I heard this in a podcast, but couldn’t find ANY source to back it up, but I’m going to share it because it is bonkers and if its real that’s crazy… one guy said that during the earthquake a river in Chile separated, so the middle of the river was dry, and one half of the river flowed one way and the other half flowed the other way. I mean, honestly, I call BS on that, but damn that’s some Moses shit.
A LOT of people lost their lives. There are many different casualty estimates for this earthquake. The official number ranges but the estimates are around 6000; plus 3,000 people were injured. There was widespread devastation in Valdivia, but it was not even close to the only place affected by the earthquake.
The town of Puerto Montt was devastated, for example, and the village of Tolten was almost completely reduced to rubble. Landslides destroyed colonial Spanish forts and dammed waterways throughout central Chile. Major flooding and disruptions in telecommunications services hampered rescue and recovery efforts.
The Associated Press reported that the seismographs in Buenos Aires, Argentina, “jumped off the recording paper at the start of the quake so that scientists could not register the violence.”
Just 10 to 15 minutes after the mainshock a tsunami came ashore in the vicinity of Lebu and it was measured at as high as 82 feet and debris was carried as far as 2 miles inland.
More than 120 miles from the epicenter the shaking caused a wave on an Argentinian lake.
Twelve hours after the shaking stopped, a tsunami smashed into Hawaii. Many shoreline facilities and buildings near coastal areas were destroyed. Near Hilo, Hawaii, 61 people were reported killed by the waves. In California, many small boats were damaged as the waves swept through marinas. At Crescent City, a wave had a runup of about 5 feet and caused damage to shoreline structures and small boats.
Waves up to 18 feet high hit the island of Honshu, Japan about 22 hours after the earthquake. There it destroyed more than 1600 homes and left 185 people dead or missing. Another 32 people were killed in the Philippines about 24 hours after the earthquake. Damage also occurred on Easter Island and Samoa.
47 hours later it likely triggered an eruption of Puyehue (Pooyeway), a volcano in the Andes of southern Chile.
Ready for the craziest after-effect? In a coastal village, residents carried out a ritual human sacrifice during the days following the main earthquake. A local shaman demanded the sacrifice in order to calm the earth and the ocean. The victim was 5-year-old José Luis Painecur, an “orphan” whose mother had gone to work as a domestic worker in Santiago and left her son under the care of her father.
Two men were charged with the crime of murder and confessed, but later recanted. They were released from jail after 2 years. A judge ruled that those involved had “acted without free will, driven by an irresistible natural force of ancestral tradition.”
Essentially the entire world was affected by this earthquake – some physically, some economically, some ritualistically… I mean, even the earth itself evidently shifted slightly off its axis, which shortened the length of the day by a whopping 1.26 microseconds. Oh, and the quake also expanded the country of Chile by an area equal to about 1,500 football fields.
So… could this happen again? Unfortunately, scientists think that an earthquake as big as the Great Chilean Earthquake could occur on a number of faults — including one along the northwest coast of the U.S., the Cascadia subduction zone. And that one is overdue for some major seismic activity.
Unfortunately for Chileans, they are located in a highly seismic region, on top of the Nazca and South American tectonic plates, Chile is likely to encounter earthquakes at a magnitude of 7.0 or higher every five years.
Story 2: Edmund Fitzgerald Shipwreck
Our story begins on November 9, 1975. The Edmund Fitzgerald, captained by Ernest M. McSorley, and the Arthur M. Anderson, captained by Bernie Cooper, took off across Lake Superior around 2:30 pm. The Fitzgerald was a faster ship, and it took the lead of about 10-15 miles, however, the two ships kept in contact via radio.
Captains McSorley and Cooper decided to take the northern course across Lake Superior, as there was a storm coming in, and they would have more protection from the highlands on the Canadian Shore. They traveled between Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula, eventually turning southeast to get to shelter at Whitefish Point, which is a township about 15 minutes from Paradise, Michigan.
But as we know from every natural disaster story we’ve ever done on this podcast, the weather is a fickle bitch. At 7 pm, Gale warnings were issued. Now, I didn’t know what a Gale warning was, but it’s a warning for ships that it is getting pretty windy – 39-54 miles per hour. By the early morning hours on November 10, the Gale warning had transformed into a storm warning, indicating that winds were about to exceed 55 miles per hour.
Although you and I might freak out at the thought of being in a boat in general, let alone in crazy winds, these captains were seasoned. Captain McSorley had over 40 years of experience and was known for treating his crew with respect. He was 63 years old and planned to retire by the end of that shipping season. By early afternoon on November 10, The Fitzgerald had sailed past Michipicoten Island and was headed toward Caribou Island, which is an uninhabited island in the eastern end of Lake Superior. At this point, The Anderson was approaching Michipocoten Island.
Captain Cooper would later recall watching the Fitzgerald pass much too close to Six Fathom Shoal, a dangerous reef which was north of Caribou Island. And, if you are like me and hear the word “reef,” and immediately think of coral, let’s all think again. Six Fathom Shoal is consists of bedrock ridges and valleys called tunnel valleys. Lots of rocks and shallow water. Not awesome.
Anywho, Captain Cooper remembered seeing the Fitzgerald in the dangerous reef while simultaneously noting the beacon the ship embodied on his radar.
And suddenly, The Edmund Fitzgerald was enveloped by snow and spray from the Great Lake. Captain Cooper could now only see the ship on his radar, and it was 17 miles ahead.
At 3:30 pm, Captain Cooper received a radio message from Captain McSorley. He said, “Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I’m checking down. Will you stay by me till I get to Whitefish?” Captain McSorley was slowing down to allow the Anderson to catch up with them. Captain Cooper asked if the pumps were going on the Fitzgerald, and Captain McSorley answered, “Yes, both of them.”
I have done enough googling for this story to consider myself a bit of a maritime expert. But I still don’t know what the hell these pumps were for. They could have been to cool down any machinery that was overheating, or they could have been used to remove water from the ship. If you’re an expert on pump and dump, make sure to shoot us a message: email@example.com.
For the next couple of hours, the radio communication between the two ships was surprisingly mundane. They mostly talked about navigation. But around 5:20 pm on November 10, Captain Cooper was distracted from helping Captain McSorley, as a wave smashed into the lifeboat on the starboard side of the Anderson, rendering the lifeboat unusable. Captain Cooper recorded winds at 58 knots, or about 66 mph, with gusts up to 70 knots, or about 80 mph. He also measured the waves at between 18 and 25 feet.
At approximately 6:55 pm, the crew on the Anderson felt a big BUMP. The ship lurched, and the men were confronted by a huge wave, engulfing the vessel. The wave crashed into the deck, pummeled into the back of the pilothouse, and drove the bow of the Anderson down into the Great Lake.
Miraculously, the Anderson evened herself out on top of the water. Another monstrous wave pummeled into the ship, yet again, the Anderson stayed afloat.
The first mate of the Anderson, Morgan Clark, continued to watch the radar for the Fitzgerald, hoping to calculate the ship’s distance from Whitefish Point. Unfortunately, the ship’s picture on the radar was inconsistent, meaning the waves were interfering with the radar reflection. At 7:10 pm, Clark radioed the Fitzgerald, asking
“Fitzgerald, this is the Anderson. Have you checked down?”
The Fitzgerald responded, “yes we have.”
“Fitzgerald, we are about 10 miles behind you and gaining about 1 1/2 miles per hour. Fitzgerald, there is a target 19 miles ahead of us. So the target would be 9 miles on ahead of you.”
“Well,” answered Captain McSorley, “Am I going to clear?”
“Yes, he is going to pass to the west of you.”
“By the way, Fitzgerald, how are you making out with your problems?” asked Clark.
“We are holding our own.”
“Okay, fine, I’ll be talking to you later.” Clark signed off.
At about 7:15 pm, the Fitzgerald disappeared completely from the Anderson’s radar. At 7:22 pm, Clark called the Fitzgerald again. He was met with silence.
As suddenly as the storm had come on, it cleared that evening. Captain Cooper attempted to contact other ships in the area, hoping that someone would have heard good news from the Fitzgerald. No one had. Obviously worried, he contacted the Coast Guard, but they were distracted with trying to locate another overdue boat.
I’ve got to hand it to Captain Cooper – he was persistent. He called the Coast Guard again at 8 pm, and more sternly expressed his concern for the Fitzgerald. The Coast Guard was like, “I mean, fine, if you’re going to keep pestering us.” At this point, the Anderson was safely docked at Whitefish Bay, but there was still nothing from the Fitzgerald.
At around 9 pm, the Coast Guard contacted Captain Cooper. They stated that it was too much water for them to cover without help, and asked Captain Cooper if he would take the Anderson back out to join in the search attempt.
And the Anderson didn’t just join the search – they led it. They ominously discovered the Fitzgerald’s two lifeboats and other debris from the ship, but no survivors.
Over the next few days, the Coast guard deployed more ships and planes to search for the Fitzgerald. They found some large pieces of wreckage on November 14. From November 22-25, there was another sonar survey, with no significant findings.
Let’s jump to the following summer – May of 1976, when another sonar survey was conducted. At this point, they were able to recover 43,000 feet of videotape and 900 pictures of the wreckage. And on May 20, 1976, the words “Edmund Fitzgerald” were seen on the upside-down stern on the boat – 535 feet below the lake’s surface. The massive ship had split into 2 large pieces.
As we know, things move a little more slowly in the government, so another year later, April 15, 1977, the Coast Guard released its official report, stating that the SS Edmund Fitzgerald did in fact sink in Lake Superior, and concluding the entire crew of 29 men had passed. They stated that the cause of the shipwreck was inconclusive, but their best guess was “the loss of buoyancy and stability resulting from massive flooding of the cargo hold. The flooding of the cargo hold took place through ineffective hatch closures as boarding seas rolled along the spar deck. No bodies were ever recovered from the wreckage.
The Lake Carrier’s Association had some thoughts about this, however. They thought that the crew of the Fitzgerald didn’t properly close the hatch covers, leading to the ship’s sinking. To me that sounds like the same thing with more finger-pointing.
Another theory is that the hull developed a stress fracture. The hull could have already been weak, and because it was carrying a heavy winter load, the hull was overpowered when it was hit by the waves.
The third theory is called “three sisters,” AKA a group of 3 rogue waves. Apparently, this is a phenomenon that can happen on Lake Superior, when three rogue waves form that are larger than other waves in inclement weather. The first wave floods the deck with water. The second wave hits before the deck has had time to drain, and the third wave overloads the deck, leading to the sinking of the ship.
The SS Fitzgerald probably went bow-first into the sea with such a powerful force that it led to the damage of the boat. But no one conclusively knows what caused the ship to take on so much water so quickly, leading to the rapid dive to the bottom of the lake.
Captain Cooper has spoken about the tragedy. About the giant waves, that attempted to sink the Anderson, Captain Cooper would later recall,” I watched those two waves head down the lake towards the Fitzgerald, and I think those were the two that sent him under.” He would also state that he believed Captain McSorley knew he was going to sink as soon as the Fitzgerald passed over the treacherous Six Fathom Shoal. Why he didn’t say anything other than asking the Anderson to come to ride close to him is anybody’s guess.
There are still so many unanswered questions about this shipwreck. But, to see a piece of this particular horrible history, we could head on over to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum to see the bell that was recovered from the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sits proudly as a memorial to the ship and her 29 lost crewmembers. Annually on November 10, a memorial ceremony is held in which the bell is rung 29 times, once for each lost crew member.
Believe it or not, I actually found a list of the names of crew members! This never happens – so I’m going to read them:
- Captain: Ernest McSorley
- First Mate: John McCarthy
- Second Mate: James Pratt
- Third Mate: Michael Armagost
- Cadet: David Weiss
- Watchmen: Ransom Cundy, Karl Peckol, William Spengler
- Wheelmen: John Simmons, Eugene O’Brien, John Poviach
- Deckhands: Paul Riippa, Mark Thomas, Bruce Hudson
- Engineers: George Holl, Edward Bindon, Thomas Edwards, Russell Haskell, Oliver Champeau
- Oilers: Ralph Walton, Blaine Wilhelm, Thomas Bentsen
- Wiper: Gordon MacLellan
- Stewards: Robert Rafferty, Allen Kalmon
- Maintenance: Joseph Mazes, Thomas Borgeson
- Porters: Frederick Beetcher, Nolan Church
In 1958, the Fitzgerald was the largest ship to have sailed across the Great Lakes, and she remains the largest ship to have sunk to the bottom.