To Heaven and Back

Twenty-eight men died when the freighter Daniel J. Morrell sank in Lake Huron; there was just one survivor. This is his story. 

By Daniel Kessel, New York, New York

As appeared in

Dennis Hale sits at the bow of the dive boat. It is April 2009. A documentary film crew has brought him to this spot in the middle of Lake Huron to talk about the rusting hulk of an ore boat that lies 200 feet below. He remembers his crewmates, his friends.

Twenty-nine sailors set out on the freighter’s final voyage. He alone survived, and a day never passes that he doesn’t think about that.

It’s been 43 years since the Daniel J. Morrell sank in a historic Great Lakes storm, but Dennis has avoided returning here. He has seen photographs of the ship’s bow resting eerily on the bottom.

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This is different. It makes him think about things he’s long tried to forget. The story he’s been afraid to tell, even to those who brought him here today.

“Keep this to yourself,” his priest had advised him long ago. “They’ll all think you’re crazy.” Now, though, he’s decided that not telling the whole story will finally drive him mad.

November 28, 1966, the Morrell embarked on its final trip of the season. Ships did not typically set sail so late in the year, when the infamous gales of the Great Lakes are at their worst.

The company that owned the freighter, however, ordered the crew on one more run, Buffalo to Taconite Harbor, Minnesota, to bring back a load of iron ore. Dennis and his shipmates weren’t happy. He was eager to return to his wife and two daughters for the holidays.

“Don’t sweat it,” said Stu, the wheelsman. “We’ll load up and turn right around. We’ll be home in a week.”

At least Dennis and his shipmates were all in it together. They’d gotten to be like family. Dennis had worked as a painter and chef in the past, but his job aboard the Morrell finally felt right. A second home. As watchman, it was his job to look out for hazards in the water.

That evening, Dennis peered up at the overcast skies from his spot in the pilothouse. A light spray blew over the bow–nothing alarming. No worrisome weather reports on the radio. After his watch, Dennis ate dinner in the galley and brought a plate to Stu. Then he returned to his bunk and went to bed.

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Bang! A noise startled him awake. The anchor bouncing against the bow? He settled back onto his pillow. Bang! This time, he felt the ship lurch, heard his stowed gear tumble to the floor.

He tried the light switch. It didn’t work. He jumped out of bed and rummaged through the dark cabin for clothes. The general alarm sounded. No time. Dennis grabbed his life jacket and rushed out on deck wearing just his boxer shorts.

“The hull has split!” a crewman called to him. Huge waves pummeled the Morrell. The ship’s steel was ripping apart below the waterline.

“I’ll meet you at the life raft!” Dennis shouted. He bolted toward his cabin for some clothes. Feeling his way through the dark passageway, he counted doorknobs to keep track of where he was. His room was pitch black. All he could find was a pea coat. That would have to do.

His bare feet went numb on the slushy deck. He ran toward the life raft–a wooden platform connected to two large floating barrels. The raft was designed to detach and float away safely after the ship had submerged. Dennis joined the other men and listened to the screech of the ship’s ripping hull.