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Friday, December 20, 2019

Decemystery (2019) 20: Dennis Hale

A photo of Dennis Hale holding a photograph of when he was saved after stranded out in Lake Huron for 38 hours.
Time for the second maritime mystery. Today, we discuss a ship that sank on Lake Huron. All aboard died—save for one man, who was saved thanks to a visit from what some claim was an angel. This is the story of Dennis Hale.

Divine Intervention: The Mystery of Dennis Hale

Today’s story comes to us from twincities.

On November 29, 1966, the 603-foot-long freighter, the Daniel. J. Morell, was gearing up to depart from Buffalo, New York and was set to go to Taconite Harbor to retrieve a load of iron ore. However, much like the nine stories we talked about in the entry on the Phantom Fleet, mother nature had other plans in store for the ship. In this case, a brutal storm was raging over Lake Huron. Winds reaching 65 miles per hour and waves upwards of 30 foot rampaged around the sailors.

The man we focus on today is the late Dennis Hale, who at the time of this story was only 26-years-old. The ship’s watchman, Hale was fast asleep (and off-duty). It was 2 in the morning when something caused him to awake when the doomed freighter finally met her end. Or, well, that would have been the case if he hadn’t assumed the sound that woke him was nothing more than an anchor that had bounced off the ship’s hull. It wasn’t until the second bang—which triggered the vessel’s alarms—that Hale finally got to his feet and rushed to grab a life jacket in the clothes he’d been sleeping in (which was a pair of boxer shorts).

With the 44-degree waters hitting his bare feet, Hale put on a peacoat with a few of his fellow shipmates. Hale described being pitched into the frigid waters as follows:

“I thought, ‘If I can get to the raft, I stand a better chance.’ I looked around, and I couldn’t see the raft. Finally I saw it between waves.”

A life raft was also pitched down, which Hale swam to along with two other men: John J. Cleary Jr. and Arthur E. Stojek. A third man, Charles Fosbender, also got onto the raft shortly after. While on the raft, the four fired emergency flares as the ship sank beneath the water (the ship effectively snapped in half thanks to the sheer intensity of the storm). Eventually, they began to talk about whether or not they’d ever see their families again.

It didn’t take long for two of the men to get their answer: Cleary and Stojek died at roughly 6 in the morning, four hours after the Morrell met her end. Ten hours later, Fosbender—with who Hale had been talking to about their families—passed away.

Hale would survive another 24 hours on the raft, alone, with the bodies of his former shipmates before he was saved. In the article above, Hale described the emotions he’d felt during this. One of his statements was as follows:

“I remember looking at John Cleary in front of me and seeing that he was all encased in ice. I got angry and got up on my elbow and shook my fist at the sky and cussed God, asking him why he was making me suffer so much.”

Hale would go on to play mind games with himself as he moved his limbs about to prevent frostbite. He also repeatedly prayed, in spite of his anger, for some sort of salvation from the situation he was in. Whether his prayers were answered or it was something else, Hale claims that on November 30th, he had an out-of-body experience. During this, Hale says that he was visited by something that he never knew during his life, but speculated it was a ghost or an angel. What little he did know was that it was a bizarre looking man, who said two sentences to him.

“Don’t eat the ice off your peacoat. You’ll lower your body temperature and die.”

Hale later added to this story in 2002, stating that he found himself floating above the raft he was on. Across a shining, white footbridge, he saw relatives who’d passed away, along with his crewmates and—bizarrely—the Morrell. Although his relatives beckoned for him to come across, one of his crewmates had different advice to give:

“No. It’s not your time. You have to go back.”

With that, Hale found himself back on the raft, a place where he’d be until 4 P.M. on November 30th, when the Coast Guard finally found him thanks to someone noticing his “slight and feeble” wave, which the person said he initially thought it was the helicopter’s rotor wash causing it. Nonetheless, two helicopters descended and they checked the raft and discovered Hale. Lifting him out of said raft took the entirety of one crew to accomplish, but the frostbitten survivor was eventually brought back to land.

Hale recounted in 2002 the reactions he got from nurses and others while at the hospital. Upon seeing how blue he was, nurses gasped. Priests asked if he would like his last rites. Doctors, for their part, told him he would be okay, but Hale believes they didn’t believe their own words.

In the way of sustained injuries: Hale had severe frostbite to his feet, suffered vascular damage to both of his legs, and sustained a gas beneath his chin that required stitches. Despite all odds, he made a full recovery, though he lost most of his toes.

In the time after the sinking of the Morrell, Hale found himself wrought with guilt over having survived. As such, he struggled for decades with substance abuse and extreme depression. In his own words, he found himself repeatedly asking:

“Why me? Why did I survive when so many others perished?”

Hale eventually kicked his addiction and came to cope with his survivor’s guilt. Through a mixture of hypnosis therapy to learn what had happened on that night in order to help the memories of his shipmates be remembered and other means, Hale went on to live a happier life after decades of trauma until his death on September 2, 2015 at the age of 75 due to cancer.

With that, the story of Dennis Hale’s incredible survival ends. With that, let’s not waste any time and move onto the theories.


1. It was divine intervention

The first theory is the one that most—but not all (I don’t want to be accused of generalizations)—religious folks subscribe to, which is that Hale was saved by God Himself. Admittedly, this theory doesn’t have evidence and that’s a given when it comes to most experiences like this. Ultimately, belief and faith are something that one cannot prove through your traditional means. Rather, it comes from a place that most would consider to be as personal as can be (like the soul).

The most commonly put forth bit of proof—if you wish to call it that—is that Hale’s situation was one in which the odds were stacked so heavily against him that he should have died and that his chances of survival were next to zero. There have been more than a few instances like this that one day I’ll cover, but one that I can name off the top of my head was a woman who was trapped out in the cold and had sustained frostbite all over her body. Despite this, she one night went into convulsions while in the hospital and suffered little more than a few bruises on her body.

While not a perfect comparison, the two are both stories where survival was nearly impossible. Despite that, the individual in question managed to survive. Yet, some don’t think that it was divine intervention. That brings us to our next theory.

2. Hale was hallucinating and was merely lucky

The second and final theory is that Hale was merely suffering from dehydration and imagined what he saw. So, in reality, he merely got lucky (extraordinarily lucky at that) and beat the odds that the Reaper had against him.

Those that support this theory—which can be anyone who isn’t religious, those who are casually religious or even very religious, and a plethora of other backgrounds—generally point to the incredible survival stories from around the world. This is true: not every incredible survival story needs to be tied to religion or an act of God to be seen as something extraordinary. It’s also true that it’s possible that Hale was merely hallucinating; if he’d been stranded and was suffering from severe anxiety as he was the last man alive and had seen his fellow crewmates die before him, it’s possible that he’d begun to lose it.

Others also point that Hale was on the heavier side of things and as such, he had more fat to burn and to assist in keeping warm. Some also say that he wasn’t suffering from his pants having been frozen. He didn’t eat the ice that was on his coat either. He also had his peacoat that helped to insulate his lungs and his heart through the 38 hours he was alone.

Nonetheless, some disagree with this theory. That’s the thing about like this: both can, plausibly, be taken both ways and both have explanations that are rooted in two things that are hard to ignore if you’re deeply religious or skeptical. I digress though, let’s move on before I end up writing a 15,000 word thesis on why belief and faith are hard to construct and deconstruct without incidents that strike a chord with the person at the receiving end of said incident.

My Take

Even though I’m a religious person, I’ve always taken stories like this with a bit of skepticism. I’ve had my own instances of hallucinations (and my own experiences that I cannot explain for the life of me). In this particular case, the conditions in which Hale was exposed to make me think that by all accounts: he should’ve died. As such, I do think that maybe he had assistance surviving from above.

On the other hand though, and to be 100% fair: it’s always possible that he managed to cheat death in spite of everything being stacked against him a thousandfold.


Stories of miraculous survival are always uplifting and inspiring. This one in particular was extraordinarily uplifting and I’m glad it was suggested to me. Although all may seem hopeless at first, there’s always the possibility that all will turn out okay in the end. One must go through Hell to get to Heaven.

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