Death of a Shipwreck Survivor

An early photo of the Daniel J. Morrell

An early photo of the Daniel J. Morrell

Dennis Hale

Rest in peace, Dennis Hale.

Last week, the sole survivor of the Daniel J. Morrell shipwreck passed away at age 75.

In 1966, in Lake Huron, the Morrell sank, leaving four men clinging to a lifeboat, hoping for rescue. Thirty-eight hours later, the Coast Guard spotted the men, but only Hale was still alive.

Twenty-nine men on board the ship; one survivor.

You can’t help but compare the Morrell to the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank just nine years later in Lake Superior. And that’s exactly what Dive Detectives did, on Season 1, Episode 5, of the show. They spoke with Hale, and brought him along as they dove on the ship that sank beneath his feet so many years ago. They were trying to figure out what happened to the Fitzgerald, and because diving on that ship is illegal (it’s considered a gravesite), they chose the Morrell, which sank under similar circumstances, to unravel the mystery.

Hale understood what those 29 men who died on the Fitzgerald went through. But those men didn’t have time to get a lifeboat free. They didn’t get an opportunity to radio for help. They didn’t have a chance of survival. But in their honor, Hale would spend the rest of his life sharing his story and the story of the men on both the Morrell and the Fitzgerald.

Since I was 13, I have been fascinated by shipwrecks, particularly those along the Shipwreck Coast on Lake Superior. I have read numerous books by Frederick Stonehouse, Wes Oleszewski and others. My parents had a cabin on Whitefish Bay, where you could see the light from Whitefish Point 11 miles to the northwest. That same light that the crew from the Edmund Fitzgerald were desperately seeking on the night the ship was lost.

The Fitzgerald holds a special place in my heart because it sank on my dad’s birthday the year I was born. And because I spent so many days on Whitefish Point, staring at that lighthouse, touring the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, standing close enough to touch the faded life preserver that floated away without a life to save.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. On Nov. 10, I will listen to “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, I will get goosebumps like I do every time I hear it, and I will remember the 29 men who died. I will also remember Dennis Hale, who honored the men of both the Morrell and the Fitzgerald for most of his life.

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