To Heaven and Back

Twenty-eight men died when the freighter sank; just one lived to tell a miraculous tale.

- Posted on Nov 20, 2013

Dennis Hale

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.

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.

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.

Something rose from behind a wave. Another ship, lit up and under power but without a crewman to be seen. Impossible. Then Dennis realized. The stern! The Morrell had torn completely in two. The stern thrashed about in the water, out of control, propellers still churning, headed right toward the life raft.

The collision sent Dennis hurtling into the black, icy water. He kicked and flailed desperately to the surface, searching for anything to grab on to. A dark wooden slab bobbed among the swells. The raft! He swam toward it but a wave tossed him away.

He gathered his strength and lunged forward again. This time, he managed to grab hold of the side and climb aboard. John and Art were there, soaked, out of breath. A fourth man joined them–Fuzzy. The rest... Dennis looked out over the water. No signs of life.

The four men lay helpless. Huge waves washed over the little raft. The wind lashed at their skin. No one talked. The sun came up and Dennis saw that John and Art hadn’t made it through the night.

Please don’t leave me here alone, Dennis prayed. He nudged Fuzzy with his knee. “Still hanging in there,” Fuzzy grunted. But he was coughing, complaining that his lungs were heavy, like they were full of something. He could barely breathe.

He lurched over, taking his final gasp, and landed limp over Dennis’s legs.

Dennis thought of his crewmates’ families, then of his own. He lay among his fallen friends and prayed. Not for survival. For mercy. God, let me die in peace.

It snowed that night. Dennis shivered beneath the damp pea coat. He closed his eyes, resigned to death. But in the morning he was still alive. The sun felt warm. He was so thirsty. He crooked his neck and slurped from a piece of ice that dangled from his collar.

“Stop eating the ice,” a voice boomed out. Dennis looked up. A strange man with white, wavy hair and bushy eyebrows stood before him. Am I losing my mind? Dennis thought.

He followed the man’s command. And then it happened.

Dennis was rising–up, up, up into the clouds. He looked down at the four bodies on the raft–his own among them. But he felt safe.

Finally he stopped rising. He was in a field full of flowers. Is this really happening? he wondered. A man, sitting in a circle surrounded by a golden fence, beckoned to Dennis. He took Dennis’s palm and read out the scenes of his life–from his childhood in Ohio up until his final moments on the raft.

Where were his shipmates, Dennis wanted to know. Where was the Morrell?

At the bottom of a hill he saw the bow of the freighter. Dennis climbed aboard. Everyone was there: John, Art, Fuzzy, Stu. It was so warm, comforting. They laughed and hugged. The ship’s stern appeared, drifting toward them. The two pieces of the ship melded together, the Morrell whole again.

The men cheered. Dennis walked back to the engine room and encountered the rest of the crew. One of the engineers called out to him, “It’s not your time, Dennis. You have to go back.”

Dennis was sucked out of the room. Back down to the hard wooden deck of the life raft. Bring me back! he thought–but it was over. Still thirsty, he tried to suck the ice on his coat again. “I told you not to eat the ice, Dennis!” boomed the voice once more. “You’ll lower your body temperature and die.”

Dennis stopped. He lay in the sun, waiting and drifting. Hours later, a motor whirred in the distance– a Coast Guard helicopter. After 38 hours on the raft, his nightmare was over.

One of the first things Dennis did was describe what he’d seen to his priest, who warned him not to repeat the story.

What if the man was right? Would people think he was crazy? Or that he’d suffered delusions out there, fading in and out of consciousness, his body fighting off hypothermia and dehydration? Sometimes Dennis doubted it himself.

But he knew the man with the bushy eyebrows saved his life. Eating the ice, he later learned, would have caused him to freeze to death. Yet why had he survived and not his friends?

The question tortured him for years. He sank into depression and substance abuse; his marriages floundered. He often thought he’d have been better off dying with his shipmates. Why me, God? Why did you spare me?

Forty-three years later, on the deck of the dive boat, Dennis can no longer deny what happened when he rose from the raft, in the midst of the greatest tragedy he’d ever known. The Morrell is down there, at the bottom of the lake. Twenty-eight lives were lost, too soon.

But he closes his eyes and he remembers his friends, standing aboard a newly mended ship, in a port of call he barely has words to describe. He still feels that warmth. That love. He can’t keep the full story a secret any longer. If there was a reason he survived, he believes, it was to tell the world about this.


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