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 told 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 passed away “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.