Dennis Hale grabbed his lifejacket and ran into the rolling passageway in his shorts. A November wind howled and pounded the empty ore carrier twisting under his feet. Around the SS Daniel J. Morrell, Lake Huron was closing in, its icy grip bending the ship in front of Hale’s eyes as it threatened to kill every man aboard.

There have been five ore carrier wrecks on the Great Lakes in modern times, the waters claiming 117 sailors between the wreck of the SS Henry Steinbrenner in 1953 and the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975.

But the wreck of the Daniel J. Morrell in 1966 marked a turning point in how cargo ships in the Great Lakes would be deemed seaworthy – while also providing through Hale a harrowing tale of survival in the brutal late-season winds of November.

This week marked the 40th anniversary of the wreck. Hale, 66, of Rock Creek, Ohio, was honored last weekend as the ship’s only survivor.

For years, memories of the experience left him terrified. Wind and snow had the power to send him running to his basement, where a more creeping fear awaited – that life itself was meaningless. Now, Hale says the wreck that almost killed him has opened a door to finding himself, spurring him to keep alive the memories of his lost shipmates, even as it led to safety improvements on the lakes.

“To die completely, a person must forget and be forgotten. If not forgotten, he does not die,” he told a memorial service for the Morrell in the Great Lakes Lore Maritime Museum in Rogers City, Mich.

In 1966, the Morrell was typical of lake-going sturdiness. It hid three stories below water and showed more above. At 586 feet long, it was a sideways skyscraper, built to ply the Great Lakes. A 1966 National Transportation Safety Board study found the average age of a lakes cargo ship was 45 years. Many, like the Morrell, were pushing 60.

In the icy late-season lakes, the obsolete steel used to build them was a cancer, the grainy mix of iron ore and alloy conspiring at the molecular level to make them brittle in the cold. The trip from Buffalo to Taconite, Minn., that Nov. 26 was the last scheduled trip of the Morrell’s season. The ship was inspected three times in 1966 without fault, though some crewmen noticed scores of rivets inside needed replacing.

No one expected any survivors when Bethlehem Steel Corporation called the Coast Guard around noon on Nov. 30, saying the Morrell was missing. At 4 p.m., Hale was rescued 3 miles south of Huron City, Mich. Of the 29 aboard, 22 bodies were found. Only Hale lived. It had been 38 hours.

For Hale, the years required 10 surgeries on his frostbitten feet, with more to come. His marriage failed, and he would never work afloat again. He refused to talk about the wreck for nearly 30 years.

Now he tells the story in churches, schools, and auditoriums, to groups up to 1,500. Bearing witness for shipwrecked crews has given him purpose, he says.

Hale awakened in the dark after the first bang at about 2 a.m. on Nov. 29. After the second loud bang, when his books flew to the floor and his bunk light wouldn’t work, Hale rushed outside in a life vest. Everything forward was dark. Behind him, glaring lights showed rain and snow around the heaving aft superstructure.

To his horror, the middle of the ship was rising, rivets tearing out of the steel as the hogbacked deck seemed to bend upward. Then, in slow motion, the ship’s stern would climb and catch up. He put on a woolen Navy pea coat and hurried to a life raft, crossing a deck wet with spray and melting snow.

The air temperature was in the 30s and the water not much warmer as some of the crew gathered near the sparking, creaking gap in the middle of the ship.

The wind howled – it gusted to 65 mph that day. Rivets popped out with puffs of smoke. All aboard knew there were other ships nearby, but there was no time to send a distress signal.

Then a wave hit, a monster like a sloping gray hillside that flung everyone into darkness.

The water held Hale under and its icy cold made him gasp. He broke the surface in the trough of a wave, rode it to the next crest, then saw the water-activated light on the raft.

John Cleary and Art Stojek scrambled up, then Hale, then they pulled in Charlie Fosbender.

The light sputtered out, and the waves closed in.

By dawn, Cleary and Stojek were dead from fluid building in their lungs. Fosbender died at 4 p.m., after sighting land.

Off a wooded shore, the raft grounded and Hale saw lights through the trees. He yelled and fired off flares until the gun broke. Nobody came.

At the second dawn, Hale held the gun together and fired two more flares at the lights ashore before he started hallucinating.

No one expected any survivors when Bethlehem Steel Corporation called the Coast Guard around noon on Nov. 30, saying the Morrell was missing. At 4 p.m., Hale was rescued 3 miles south of Huron City, Mich. Of the 29 aboard, 22 bodies were found. Only Hale lived. It had been 38 hours.

For Hale, the years required 10 surgeries on his frostbitten feet, with more to come. His marriage failed, and he would never work afloat again. He refused to talk about the wreck for nearly 30 years. When he looked out at Lake Huron, it stared back with patient malevolence.

In the early 1990s, he agreed to attend a banquet in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., writing on two note cards a bland outline of gratitude. But he blanched when he saw the program was dedicated to the Morrell’s crew. Suddenly, he knew he was the only voice they had.

Now he tells their story in churches, schools, and auditoriums, to groups up to 1,500. Bearing witness for shipwrecked crews has given him purpose, he says.

“Life isn’t an easy thing. It’s enduring the hardships with an eye toward your fellow man,” he said while traveling between speaking engagements. “There were years I didn’t think about my fellow man at all. Now I can be there for them.”


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