StoryCorps
3:28 am
Fri December 6, 2013

Adrift In Frigid Water, Not Caring 'If You Live Or Die'

Originally published on Fri December 6, 2013 10:49 am

It was 1966, and a ship called the Daniel J. Morrell was making its last run of the season, hauling steel across Lake Huron. The crew was eager to head home for Christmas. But one night, caught in a severe storm, the ship broke apart and sank.

Only a few of the crew members made it to a life raft, and only one of them, watchman Dennis Hale, survived.

"It took eight minutes from the time the general alarm sounded until I wound up in the water," Dennis tells his wife, Barbara, on a visit to StoryCorps in Ohio. "The main deck was starting to tear. You could see sparks; you could hear it ripping real slow like a piece of paper. ...

"By dawn, I looked at the kid in front of me and there was some white foam coming out of his mouth. And I jabbed him, and I said, 'You all right, man?' And he didn't respond," Hale continues. "And behind me was another fellow — there was no response from him, either.

"And so I kicked the third guy, and I said, 'Are you OK?' He says, 'I'm hanging in there.' We talked about being home for Christmas with our families. But he says, 'It feels like my lungs are filling up or something.' "

He started coughing, Dennis says, and then died "with his arm around me."

"I guess my biggest fear right then and there was I didn't want to be out there alone. When you're in a situation like that, you don't really care if you live or die, you just want the whole thing over with," he explains.

The ordeal lasted 38 hours. Dennis tried to suffocate himself, but "all I managed to do was gag myself," he says. "And before long I saw daylight again. At one point I heard this noise overhead, and I looked and it was a helicopter. And I waved to them. ...

"And the next morning I wasn't fine, but I wasn't dead, either. Every day I'd ask the nurse if there's any survivors. I figured I survived, why couldn't somebody else?

"Finally one day she came in, she says, 'You should stop asking. It's been too long. If there's anybody else out there, they're dead.' I just felt shame, embarrassment. I didn't want to be the sole survivor. I just wanted my old life back. There were 28 people aboard. It was quite a loss — my whole family."

Haunted by survivor's guilt, Dennis refused to talk about his experience for almost three decades. But if he had a chance to talk to his shipmates today, he tells Barbara, he would tell them "that I miss them, that I love them, and I'm glad for the time we had together."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps, and today we hear from the sole survivor of a shipwreck. In 1966, Dennis Hale was a watchman on a ship called the Daniel J. Morrell. One night, the Morrell was hauling steel across Lake Huron when it got caught in a severe winter storm. The ship broke apart and sank. Of the dozens of sailors on board, only Dennis Hale and a handful of others made it onto a life raft.

He came to StoryCorps with his wife, Barbara, to look back on what happened.

DENNIS HALE: It took eight minutes from the time the general alarm sounded until I wound up in the water. The main deck was starting to tear. You could see sparks. You could hear it ripping real slow like a piece of paper. The noise, the noise was just unbelievable. I didn't have any clothes on. I had a life jacket, a pair of undershorts and a pea coat on.

And we went through this big wave. The first thing you hear when you come through the backside is everybody gasping for air and then a 65 mile an hour wind would hit you and it just felt like your skin was being pulled off. By dawn I looked at the kid in front of me and there was some white foam coming out of his mouth. And I jabbed him, and I said, You all right, man?

And he didn't respond. And behind me was another fellow, there was no response from him either. And so I kicked the third guy, and I said, Are you okay? He says, I'm hanging in there. We talked about being home for Christmas with our families. But he says, It feels like my lungs are filling up or something.

Well, he started coughing and he passed away and he fell with his arm around me. I guess my biggest fear right then and there was I didn't want to be out there alone. When you're in a situation like that, you don't really care if you live or die, you just want the whole thing over with. And that night, you know, I had my hands in mouth to keep my hands warm, I thought maybe there's some way I could shove them down there far enough I could block off my air. But all I managed to do was gag myself. And before long I saw daylight again. At one point I heard this noise overhead, and I looked and it was a helicopter. And I waved to them.

BARBARA HALE: How long did all this take?

DENNIS HALE: Thirty-eight hours. And the next morning I wasn't fine, but I wasn't dead either. Every day I'd ask the nurse if there's any survivors. I figured I survived, why couldn't somebody else? Finally one day she came in, she says, You should stop asking. It's been too long. If there's anybody else out there, they're dead.

I just felt shame, embarrassment. I didn't want to be the sole survivor. I just wanted my old life back. There were 28 people aboard. It was quite a loss, my whole family.

BARBARA HALE: If you had a chance to talk to your shipmates, what would you tell them?

DENNIS HALE: That I miss them, that I love them, and I'm glad for the time we had together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Dennis Hale remembering his shipmates who died in the Daniel J. Morrell shipwreck of 1966. He told that story to his wife, Barbara, at StoryCorps in Ohio. You can get the podcast at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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