A Good Killing
The Daniel J. Morrell was built in 1906, and the hard-working, 42-year-old ore carrier, like other massive Great Lake carriers of her era, left every port of call with a stowaway aboard -- a fatal flaw in her very DNA. Schumacker's absorbing account of the Morrell's destruction and crewman Dennis Hale's incredible tale of survival may be the shortest book yet published on the tragedy. But he doesn't waste a word in this engrossing and full account of the sinking, which also includes transcripts of the Coast Guard's hearings into the Morrell's loss.
The Daniel J. Morrell had supposedly completed her last voyage of the season when engine problems in another ore carrier necessitated the old workhorse make another round trip to Taconite Harbor, Minnesota. Dennis Hale, a 26-year-old watchman on the Morrell, arrived at the Buffalo, NY harbor only to watch his boat leaving without him. He caught up with the Morrell in Windsor where it stopped to take on coal. Meanwhile, a huge storm was bearing down on the Great Lakes. The Morrell's sister ship, the Edward Y. Townsend was also northbound and the two ore carriers entered Lake Huron on November 28, just hours apart.
By nightfall, both boats were taking a terrible pounding as the full force of the storm swept into lower Lake Huron. Twenty-five to thirty-foot high waves at intervals of 250- to 300-feet assaulted the Morrell and two of the huge waves would often pass under the freighter at the same time which put enormous stress on the hull. Rivets popped, anchors slammed against housings, wires screamed in the wind and at times wind and waves came at the ore boat from two directions at once. It was becoming ever more difficult for the Morrell to maintain her course. What the Morrell's crew didn't know was that the steel used in the construction of ore carriers prior to 1948 was susceptible to becoming weakened and brittle after long exposure to cold temperatures.
Schumacher does a masterful job of recounting from what would have been the crew's point of view in experiencing the ore carrier literally being torn in half by the violence of the storm. The bow section, where Hale's quarters were located, sank first. The watchman went into the icy waters of Lake Huron wearing underpants, a life jacket, and a pea coat. Hale and three other crew members crawled aboard a life raft and watched in probable disbelief as the aft section of the Morrell, still under power, motored away. It plunged to the bottom of Lake Huron about an hour later.
The Morrell wasn't reported missing until the next day. Schumacher describes in riveting detail the thirty-six hours Hale spent on the raft. He and his companions were at the mercy of icy waves that threatened to hurl them into the lake, and high winds that left them feeling as if they were being burned. Hale watched his three companions die, and his survival was nothing short of miraculous. Hale was left with both long-lasting medical problems and deep psychological wounds from his ordeal.
The author fully recounts the search and rescue operations following the sinking. The remains of the Morrell wasn't discovered until a decade after she went down. The book also reveals how the fatal flaw in the old steel almost sent Morrell's sister ship to the bottom in the same storm. It was also the probable cause of the Carl D. Bradley's destruction a decade earlier when that boat went down in another November storm with the loss of all but two crewmen.
Whether you've read about the fate of the Daniel J. Morrell before, or come to this legendary story for the first time, Schumacher's book is all but impossible to put down from page one.
Torn in Two by Michael Schumacher. University of Minnesota Press, 2016, $25.95