Great Lakes shipwreck 50 years ago brought tragic loss, incredible survival
Fifty years ago today, in the early morning hours of Nov. 29, 1966, the freighter Daniel J. Morrell was steaming up the Great Lakes, bound for Taconite Harbor to pick up a load of iron ore, and struggling to push through a wicked November storm on Lake Huron.
The 60-year-old, 603-foot-long ship and its crew of 29 had been pounded for hours by 65 mph winds and 20, 25, 30-foot waves when the aged ship started breaking up. In the frigid darkness on the open lake, with alarms sounding, the crew — five of whom had ties to the Northland — scrambled to reach life rafts as the vessel split in two.
Only one member of the crew would be rescued to tell the tale of tragic loss and incredible survival.
Dennis Hale was a 26-year-old watchman from Ohio when the Morrell began its 34th and last scheduled trip of the 1966 shipping season, departing Buffalo in ballast for Taconite Harbor.
While the storm raged outside at about 2 a.m. on Nov. 29, Hale was off-duty and asleep; an ominous bang jolted him awake. Figuring the anchor was bouncing off the hull of the vessel, he rolled over and closed his eyes. But then there was another bang, louder than the first. And then the boat's alarms sounded, he recounted in interviews with the News Tribune in 2002 and again in 2012; Hale died in September 2015 at age 75 after years of sharing his story and keeping alive the memory of his ship and crewmates.
Wearing only his sleeping clothes — a pair of boxer shorts — Hale grabbed a life jacket and a peacoat and sloshed barefoot across the boat's flooded deck.
The National Transportation Safety Board later determined that the pre-1948 low-carbon steel used to build the Morrell had a propensity for "brittle fracture.'' The big boat snapped in half under the stress of the storm. The stern slammed the bow broadside and then, remarkably, pushed past.
Hale, several shipmates and a life raft were pitched into the 44-degree water. He thought he was a dead man.
"I thought, If I can get to the raft, I stand a better chance," he told the News Tribune in 2012. "I looked around and I couldn't see the raft. Finally I saw it between waves."
He swam to the raft, joining John J. Cleary Jr. and Arthur E. Stojek. Charles Fosbender arrived shortly afterwards. The four watched the bow sink. The stern, its engine still running, disappeared in the darkness to sink several miles away. The men fired emergency flares; they talked of home and their chances of seeing family again. The air temperature hovered around freezing.
Cleary and Stojek died about 6 a.m. About 2 p.m. Fosbender and Hale talked about families and being home.
"Then we grew silent again until just before he passed away" about 4 p.m., Hale recalled in 2012. "He boosted himself up on the raft and put one hand on my hip and said that it wouldn't be long until we would be bottoming out on the beach."
It was hard watching shipmates die, Hale said, but under the circumstances, "you don't care if you live or die, you just want it over. The first wave we went through, I was there."
But he survived another 24 hours in the raft, alone except for the bodies of his three shipmates.
"I remember looking at John Cleary in front of me and seeing that he was all encased in ice," Hale said. "I got angry and got up on my elbow and shook my fist at the sky and cussed God, asking him why he was making me suffer so much."
He also remembers praying, playing mind games and moving his limbs in an effort to hold off frostbite. On the afternoon of Nov. 30, Hale had an out-of-body experience. A visitor came to him. A ghost, an angel — Hale said years later that he didn't know. It was a strange-looking man.
"Don't eat the ice off your peacoat," the man warned. "You'll lower your body temperature and die."
Later, Hale recalled in a 2002 interview with the News Tribune, he hovered above his raft. He could see himself and his crewmates below. Through a cloud above he could see a bright white footbridge. Relatives who had died before him stood on the far end. They beckoned him across. But his crewmates were there, too, the ones who had perished the night before. So was the Morrell.
"No,'' a crewmate said to him. "It's not your time. You have to go back.''
Hale found himself back on the raft.
Rescued after 38 hours
Meanwhile, efforts to find the Morrell and its crew had finally begun. At about noon Nov. 30 the ship's owners notified the Coast Guard that the ship — which never had a chance to transmit a distress call — was missing. At 1:12 p.m. another vessel reported sighting a body wearing a life jacket stenciled with the missing ship's name.
About 4 p.m., two Coast Guard helicopters spotted a life raft aground on a shoal along the shore near Harbor Beach, Mich., about 100 miles north-northeast of Detroit.
Hale saw one and waved. A searcher later said Hale's wave was so slight and feeble he believed the helicopter's rotor wash might have caused it. Both helicopters descended, and rescuers converged on the raft.
It took the whole helicopter crew to lift the frostbitten Hale out of the raft.
Hale told the News Tribune in 2002 that he remembered being rescued. He remembers the Coast Guard helicopter, being carried to an ambulance and then to a hospital. He remembers the priest offering him last rites, nurses gasping at how blue he was, doctors telling him he would be all right, but probably not believing it.
Hale suffered severe frostbite to his feet, vascular damage to his lower legs and a gash under his chin that required stitches.
Plenty of theories have surfaced about his survival.
Hale was a heavier man who withstood a huge weight loss over two days. Wearing only undershorts on his lower body, he wasn't bogged down by heavy, frozen pants. He didn't eat the ice off his coat. His life jacket being under the peacoat helped insulate his heart and lungs.
Among the 28 men who died in the loss of the Morrell were five from the Northland: George A. Dahl, 38, and Joseph A. Mahsem, 59, both of Duluth; Alfred G. Norkunas, 39, of Superior; Albert P. Wieme, 51, of Knife River; and Phillip E. Kapets, 51, of Ironwood, Mich.
And there nearly was a sixth victim from the area. Hjalmer Edwards, 61, of Ashland became ill with pneumonia when the ship was downbound and was transferred from the ship to a Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., hospital. He was still in the hospital when the Morrell sank.
Keeping the memory alive
Hale later suffered from decades of substance abuse and the torment of guilt. Like many survivors of tragedies, he asked himself time and again: "Why me? Why did I survive when so many others perished?"
His public silence lasted for years, including after the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald sank in another November storm, on Lake Superior, nine years later with the loss of its crew of 29.
The Fitzgerald has remained vivid in the collective memory of the Great Lakes region thanks in part to the Gordon Lightfoot song about the tragedy. The Morrell has no such cult following.
Eventually Hale agreed to attend a screening of a documentary about the Morrell. He said a few words about it and felt better.
That gradually led Hale to devote the last 25 years of his life to sharing his story. He even agreed to be hypnotized, to unearth more memories of his 38-hour ordeal.
"That was very therapeutic for him," his widow, Barbara Hale, told the Buffalo News. "It got to the point that he wanted his shipmates to be remembered. You hear all about the Fitzgerald. You never heard about the Morrell. He wanted his shipmates remembered. That was his family."
Hale visited the Northland several times to speak about his experience, including at the Gales of November conference in Duluth in 2002. He also wrote a book and contributed to another on the Morrell
"He didn't think of himself as a hero," Barbara Hale said. "He said he was put into a situation, and he happened to survive it."
Several remembrances of the 50th anniversary are being held this week, including a memorial service today in Ashtabula, Ohio, where a bell will be rung for each of the 28 victims.
"And now that Dennis has passed," his widow said, "they'll ring the bell for him, too."
This story contains material previously published in the News Tribune in 2002 and 2012, from interviews by the News Tribune's Chuck Frederick and Steve Kuchera. The Buffalo (N.Y.) News contributed to this report.