Sunday, December 2, 2007

Gales of November II

Dennis Hale is a Great Lakes veteran with a sad tale to tell.

On the night of November 29, 1966, Hale was a crewman aboard the 600-foot freighter Daniel J. Morrell. With twenty-nine men aboard, the Morrell was making her last trip of the 1966 navigation season, sailing north on Lake Huron on her way to pick up a load of iron ore near Duluth, Minnesota. The crews of the big lakers almost universally dread the last trip. It comes at a time when the weather on the Great Lakes is at its worst, and the crews, by this point exhausted from sailing the big ships to too many port towns to mention, are distracted by thoughts of getting home to deeply missed loved ones and the long, restful winter layover.

The crew of the Morrell was no different. And neither was this finale to the shipping season. On that fateful November night, Lake Huron was in a frenzy, lashed by a storm of a severity not seen in many years. Seventy-mile-per-hour winds whipped the boat, and pushed the waves up to a height greater than the towering Morrell herself. It was tough going for the aged freighter, now sixty years old and made of steel that had been forged way back in the early 1900s.

Hale was in his bunk, in the Morrell's forward section, when the boat literally cracked in half at about two in the morning. Apart from the sickening sound of the splitting hull, which came apart about midship, the power went out (the Morrell's generators were located in the stern section), leaving Hale to struggle to the main deck in the pitch dark wearing nothing but his underwear, a coat, and a lifejacket. When he got there, he was confronted by a truly unbelievable spectacle: the Morrell's stern section, still driven by her powerful engines and fully lit up, was literally bashing away at the bow, where the terrified crew was now gathered. After several moments of this violent death struggle, the stern finally broke away and literally sailed off into the night, a short-lived vessel all its own. (The stern would later be found on the bottom of the lake nearly five miles from the wreckage of the Morrell's bow.)

Soon enough, the last redoubt of the Morrell's beleaguered crew began to slip beneath the swirling waves and Hale, with none of the protection of today's cold weather gear, found himself immersed in Lake Huron's icy grip. Knowing all too well that he would not last long in such conditions, he managed to swim to a nearby raft, which was occupied by three of his shipmates.

Dennis Hale would be the only one of the Daniel J. Morrell's crew to ever return home. The other men in the raft succumbed to hypothermia in the nearly forty hours it took for rescuers to get to them, and the rest, presumably, didn't last long after the bow section went down.

Hale continues to tell the story of the loss of the Daniel J. Morrell, and even wrote a book about his experience to make sure his lost crewmates aren't forgotten.

Dennis Hale was in Ashtabula, Ohio, last week. You can read more, from the Ashtabula Star-Beacon, here.

You can read more about the Daniel J. Morrell here.

For more on Dennis Hale's book, click here.

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