The story behind the Great Lakes' third-deadliest shipwreck
A recent exhibit and book re-examine the 1966 sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell.
DULUTH — Great Lakes historian and transportation buff John DeBeck visited Duluth on Friday, March 4, to talk about an event that has become a bit of a personal fascination or obsession: the sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell.
DeBeck was just 15 years old when he first met Dennis Hale and heard his tale as the sole survivor of the Morrell’s 29-member crew after a wicked Lake Huron gale broke the laker in two. Following years of painful silence, Hale was finally beginning to publicly share his harrowing story, and many people were eager to hear it, including DeBeck.
At around 2 a.m. Nov. 29, 1966, Hale was awakened from his sleep by a thunderous bang, followed by the sound of the ship’s alarm system. The watchman knew something was seriously wrong. With no time to dress, he grabbed his peacoat and a life jacket. When he climbed up top without shoes, Hale saw the deck of the 603-foot-long ship heaving and bending.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Hale said: “You could see sparks. You could hear it ripping. Real slow like a piece of paper. The noise. The noise was just unbelievable.”
Soon, the ship had broken in two, with Hale on the bow section only to be swept overboard by a large wave. Between the waves, he caught sight of a life raft and swam to it, where he was joined by three other crew members.
As the bow of the laker quickly sank, the stern section, still under power, pushed ahead and continued its journey for about another 5 miles before also going under.
Meanwhile, Hale and his shipmates on the raft were beset by 60-70 mph winds, tossing them amid up to 30-foot waves. The men tried to cheer one another with thoughts of home, but one by one, Hale watched his colleagues freeze to death. Wearing nothing but a pair of J.C. Penney boxer shorts, a life jacket and his peacoat, Hale somehow managed to hang on for 38 hours until a helicopter finally spotted him and plucked him from the life raft, still clinging to life.
"It wasn't a pleasant moment from the time the alarm sounded to the time I was picked up. But the worst thing were those waves," Hale told the News Tribune in a 2002 interview. "It was dark. They seemed to carry us forever. We could never catch our breath. And then the winds hit us and it felt like your skin was being peeled off. It was horrible."
'You have no idea how emotional it was'
Following his first meeting with DeBeck, Hale began to share his story more widely, and the two became fast friends, until cancer finally claimed the mariner’s life in 2015.
In visiting with Hale’s bereaved widow, Barb, DeBeck recalled how she asked: “What am I going to do with all his stuff now?”
DeBeck explained that Hale had saved his life jacket, a flare gun from the raft and numerous other artifacts.
“When you walked into their house, it was almost like a mini-Morrell museum,” he said.
As they talked it over and considered what Hale would have wanted, the two agreed donating his collection to a marine museum would be the best way to keep the memory of the Morrell alive.
But both believed Hale wouldn’t want an exhibit centered on his ordeal. Rather, he would have wanted it to pay tribute to his lost shipmates.
Over the next few years, DeBeck reached out to the families of the Morrell’s crew members, gathering photos and stories of the deceased from around the nation and Canada. These materials were assembled into an exhibit that opened at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, Michigan, in August 2021 — more than a year later than first anticipated — due to the pandemic.
At first, DeBeck didn’t know how his inquiries would be received.
“Here I am, Joe Nobody that they’ve never met, cold-calling them. So, it was amazing to me how I very quickly gained 28 new friends and still have those friends today, because I showed an interest in something that was near and dear to their hearts," DeBeck said.
One of his more memorable visits was with the family of 2nd Engineer Al Norkunas, of Superior. DeBeck was passing through the Twin Ports and arranged to meet them for dinner at Barker’s Island, where about two dozen relatives gathered to learn more about the project.
“Probably the most emotional part of this whole study was when one of the Norkunas men walked up to me and asked me for my hand. I thought he wanted to shake it, but he put a watch in my hand,” DeBeck said.
Tom Norkunas told him the watch had been found on the lifeless body of his uncle, Al, recovered several months after the shipwreck.
Norkunas thought the watch might reveal exactly when the Morrell’s stern sank, as that’s where the engineer had been at the time the ship broke in two. But Tom shook his head and said it would offer no such clue because the watch was still working.
He asked DeBeck to please include the watch in the exhibit, as a way to honor his Uncle Al.
Of course, Debeck obliged, but said: “What really threw me for a loop was this was a 1958 14-karat gold Omega Seamaster waterproof watch, which if you or I took it and sold it today is a $2,500 watch, and it’s worth many times more than that as a shipwreck artifact.”
DeBeck is still moved by the memory of the exchange.
“For someone who had never met me or talked to me, to come up to me and put that watch in my hand and ask me to do that," he said. "Even today, you have no idea how emotional it was, and how it told me, we’re doing the right thing for these families.”
Tom Norkunas said his father, Daniel, his Uncle Ted and his Uncle Al all worked on the Great Lakes, and the watch carries a lot of family meaning.
He recalls he was 7 years old when news of the Morrell’s disappearance reached Superior, and the whole family was glued to the news.
“The atmosphere in our house was just … I don’t know. You could cut it with a knife,” Norkunas said.
The watch was passed down to Norkunas’ father and then to himself. With no clear heir next in line to receive it, he had worried about where it might end up when he dies.
“I think this took a weight off of my mind about what would become of the watch,” Norkunas said. “I don’t think there’s a better place for it,”
The exhibit has generated a lot of interest, according to Bruce Lynn, director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.
"It's been received very well," he said. "There have been a lot of good comments, and I think people have been particularly happy about the focus on the crew."
Of course, the most famous Great Lakes shipwreck was that of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975, with none of the 29 members of its crew surviving the waters of Lake Superior. And the most deadly event was the 1958 sinking of the Carl Bradley in Lake Michigan, claiming the lives of all but two of 35 shipmates onboard.
But Lynn said people often seem inclined to forget just how dangerous a job it was to work the lakes and how many lives have been lost.
"There's theoretically more than 6,000 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and some statistics say as many as 10,000," he said. "Each one of them had a crew. Each one had its own story. That's a lot like the Morrell in that sense, that these are stories that to a degree, unless you're a shipwreck enthusiast, have kind of been forgotten about."
Coast Guard theory 'doesn't hold water'
DeBeck said the exhibit brought together many of the far-flung families of the Morrell’s crew members for the first time in 55 years.
“So we’re trying to find all these families, and they’re telling me stories that are contrary to what was reported at the time, and they’re giving us clues. And that was kind of the start of us thinking: Something’s not right,” he said.
A Coast Guard investigation immediately after the wreck of the Morrell implicated the high-sulfur steel that had been used to construct the 60-year-old ship. This type of steel can become brittle in cold conditions, making it more susceptible to stress damage.
But DeBeck wasn’t buying that as the sole reason for the laker’s demise, referring to the initial report as “a sloppy excuse answer.”
He said if the properties of that type of steel in cold weather were to blame, many other Great Lakes vessels would have suffered a similar fate.
“So, pardon the pun, but the brittle-steel theory just doesn’t hold water,” DeBeck said.
To get to the bottom of what really caused the ship to sink, DeBeck assembled a team, including diver David Trotter, working in concert with Undersea Research Associates, and Bruce Halverson, a lead vintage ship marine engineer with Fincantieri Marine Group in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.
“Now, fortunately, because of the research that our team did over a period of three years — from 2018 to 2020 — we uncovered a lot of the things that had been hidden for a long time and were able to determine the true cause of the wreck and give some closure to these families, DeBeck said.
“We were able to determine, without a doubt, that the ship was taking on water because the waves that were hitting the ship, going from starboard to port, actually bent a lot of the hatch clamps that were holding the telescoping hatches down,” DeBeck said.
By law, the hatches of the Morrell should have been battened down at that time of year, but DeBeck noted that “a lot of captains didn’t do that when they were empty, because they didn’t feel the need.”
The Morrell had left Buffalo under ballast, bound for Taconite Harbor to supply Bethlehem Steel with its final load of pellets for the season.
“If you study the striations where clamps have broken off, you can see that they’ve broken off or bent from right to left, as opposed to popping straight forward and the hatch covers flying off. There are still hatch covers remaining on the Morrell on both the stern and the bow that are still in place, but they’re shuffled. And you can see the shuffling action occurred because of the waves,” DeBeck said.
“She was definitely was taking on water. But at 2 a.m. in the middle of the blackness, if you’re losing freeboard, you don’t necessarily see this or recognize it,” he said.
DeBeck also noted that the Morrell’s sister ship, the Edward Y. Townsend, which pulled off course and took shelter from the same storm behind Cove Island, was found to have taken on 6-8 feet of water in all three cargo holds. That vessel also had a cracked deck.
“It’s about the same equivalent as what they would have moved in ore. But 10,000 tons of water moves around,” he said, noting that that quantity of liquid sloshing around would cause a tremendous deal of wracking and structural stress in rough seas.
DeBeck and his research team have compiled their findings and theories into a book called "The Daniel J. Morrell: Lost But No Longer Forgotten," published by Halfcourt Press.