, , , , , , , , ,

Daniel J. Morrell

On November 28, 1966, Bethlehem Steel’s 60 year old, 603 foot (184 m), freighter, the SS Daniel J. Morrell, was ordered on a final run from Buffalo to Taconite Harbor, Minnesota to pick up a load of taconite iron ore. This was late in the year and a bad time to set sail on the Great Lakes. Forty-seven years ago today, November 29, 1966, the Daniel J. Morrell broke in two, during a storm on Lake Huron, and sank, killing 28 of its 29 crewmen. It had been recognized since at least 1963 (perhaps as early as 1958), subsequent to research, that pre-1948 (high carbon, low manganese) steel became brittle and risked quickly cracking in two in temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10C), especially under stress. The waters were 33 degrees fahrenheit (1 C).

According to Thompson (2000),”They had known for some time that steel used to build ships before 1948 was inferior, but despite the fact that Coast Guard officers had inspected the Morrell on numberous occasions they had never tested the steel in her hull or warned her owners about possible problems.” He also says that they “often proved unable to ferret out serious structural problems“. He argues that “After the Carl D. Bradley sank in 1958, Coast Guard technical experts were aware of the shortcomings of the notch-sensitive and brittle steel that was used to build many ships prior to 1948, but that doesn’t seem to have been any program in place to warn the owners or crews of such vessels. That led to the loss of the Daniel J. Morrell in 1966 and may have been a factor in many other shipwrecks.” He says that it’s “obvious that the shipowners and regulatory agencies could have done a lot more to prevent deaths as a result of shipwreck“. One blatant example was lack of sufficient lifeboats for passenger steamers: “As obvious as the problem was, the political power of the shipping companies was great enough that neither Congress nor the Steamboat Inspections Service did naything to correct the situation until after the 1912 loss of the Titanic, and then they delayed implementing ‘boats for all’ as long as possible. If the steamboat inspectors had been motivated to save the lives of persons traveling on steamers on the lakes, or on any other US waters, they would have been complaining to Congress daily about the deficiencies in lifeboats“(Thompson, 2000, pp. 338-339).

The sinking led to an inquiry. W.J. Smith of the US Coast Guard, on October 4, 1967, noted that “This pre-1948 steel generally has high transition temperature, and is therefore susceptible to brittle fracture. While it is true that corrosion of steel under the fresh water conditions of the Great Lakes is minimal, fatigue as a result of repeated stress cycling over a long period of years can and does lead to fatigue cracks. This type of deterioration may be difficult to detect despite diligent inspection“. On February 8, 1968, the US Department of Transportation Safety Board issued directions that ships constructed prior to 1948 should be either reinforced or not allowed to sail on the Great Lakes during inclement autumn weather. They also requested information on plans for “construction of replacement vessels, which seems the ultimate solution to this problem“.

The sister ship to the Daniel J. Morrell, the SS Edward Y. Townsend, made the same journey with her and suffered similar, but less serious, cracks. When being towed for scrap, it too split in two during a storm and sank.

The problem of brittleness of metals below a certain temperature or ductile-brittle transition temperature (DBTT) is also known as nil-ductility transition temperature (NDT). Above a certain temperature the metal has some give or flexibility when stressed or damaged (although ductile fracture can occur at elevated temperatures). Below a certain temperature it may become brittle and suddenly break dramatically. It is believed that this played a role in the sinking of the Titanic. But, what if we were talking about a nuclear reactor? This is actually one aspect of material sciences that is an important consideration for nuclear reactors. The NDT temperature increases constantly under irradiation, so it is essential to start with the right formulation of material. (see: https://sites.ntc.doe.gov/partners/tr/Training%20Textbooks/04-Material%20Science/4-Module%204-Brittle%20Fracture.pdf ) There are other aspects of material science, which must be gotten right for nuclear reactors, as well. It cannot be just anything goes.

Back to the Story of the Daniel Morrell:
Making the last run of the season with her sister ship the SS Edward Y. Townsend, the Morrell became caught in winds exceeding 70 mph (110 km/h) and swells that topped the height of the ship (20–25 foot waves).[4] During the early morning hours, the Townsend made the decision to take shelter in the St. Clair River, leaving the Morrell alone on the waters north of Pointe Aux Barques, Michigan, heading for the protection of Thunder Bay. At 2 am, the ship began its death throes, forcing the crew onto the deck, where many jumped to their deaths in the 34 degree Lake Huron waters. At 2:15 am, the ship broke in two, and the remaining crewmen loaded into a raft on the forward section of the vessel. While they waited for the bow section to sink and the raft to be thrown into the lake, there were shouts that a ship had been spotted off the port bow. Moments later, it was discovered that the looming object was not another ship, but in fact the Morrell’s aft section, barreling towards them under the power of the ship’s engines. The two sections collided, with the aft section continuing into the distance. In the words of writer William Ratigan, the remnants of the vessel disappeared into the darkness ‘like a great wounded beast with its head shot off’.[5]


The Morrell was not reported missing until 12:15pm the following afternoon, 30 November, after the vessel was overdue at its destination, Taconite Harbor, Minnesota. The U.S. Coast Guard issued a ‘be on the lookout’ alert and dispatched several vessels and aircraft to search for the missing freighter.

At around 4:00 pm on 30 November a Coast Guard helicopter located the lone survivor, 26-year-old Watchman Dennis Hale, near frozen and floating in a life raft with the bodies of three of his crewmates. Hale had survived the nearly 40-hour ordeal in frigid temperatures wearing only a pair of boxer shorts, a lifejacket, and a pea coat.

The survey of the wreck found the shipwreck in 220 feet (67 m) of water with the two sections 5 miles (8.0 km) apart.[6]

The SS Edward Y. Townsend, after having escaped the same fate as her sister, had been discovered as having a large crack in its deck that grew worse from the same storm. It was declared a total loss and was docked for almost two years. Plans were made to tow the vessel to Europe to be scrapped. On her way during tow, she was caught in a strong storm on October 7, 1968 off Newfoundland and snapped in two, foundering in the general vicinity that the RMS Titanic had sunk.[7] The German saltie Nordmeer which had grounded at Thunder Bay Island Shoal on November 19 was declared a total loss after the additional damage to its bottom caused by the storm.[8]

The destructive force of the November seas and wind were an important factor in this loss, as it has been in many similar incidents on the Great Lakes.[9] The Coast Guard investigation of the Morrell sinking concluded that it broke in half due to the brittle steel used in her hull which was a ‘common problem’ in ships built before 1948.[10]

In addition to the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, other contemporary Great Lakes freighters lost under similar circumstances were the SS Carl D. Bradley and the SS Henry Steinbrenner.

The following crew were lost in the sinking:[1]
Bragg, Norman M., 40, Niagara Falls, NY, Watchman
Campbell, Stuart A., 60, Marinette, WI, Wheelsman
Cleary, John J., Jr., 20, Cleveland, OH, Deckhand
Crawley, Arthur I., 47, Rocky River, OH, Master
Dahl, George A., 38, Duluth, MN, Third Assistant Engineer
Davis, Larry G., 27, Toledo, OH, Deckwatch
Fargo, Arthur S., 52, Ashtabula, OH, Fireman
Fosbender, Charles H., 42, St. Clair, MI, Wheelsman
Grippi, Saverio, 53, Ashtabula, OH, Coal Passer
Groh, John M., 21, Erie, PA, Deckwatch (missing)
Homick, Nicholas P., 35, Hudson, PA, Second Cook
Kapets, Phillip E., 51, Ironwood, MI, First Mate
Konieczka, Chester, 45, Hamburg, NY, Fireman
MacLeod, Duncan R., 61, Gloucester, MA, Second Mate
Mahsem, Joseph A., 59, Duluth, MN, Porter
Marchildon, Valmour A., 43, Kenmore, NY, First Assistant Engineer
Marcotte, Ernest G., 62, Waterford, MI, Third Mate
Norkunas, Alfred G., 39, Superior, WI, Second Assistant Engineer
Price, David L., 19, Cleveland, OH, Coal Passer (missing)
Rischmiller, Henry, 34, Williamsville, NY, Wheelsman
Satlawa, Stanley J., 39, Buffalo, NY, Steward (missing)
Schmidt, John H., 46, Toledo, OH, Chief Engineer
Sestakauskas, Charles J., 49, Buffalo, NY, Porter
Simpson, Wilson E., 50, Albemarle, NC, Oiler
Stojek, Arthur E., 41, Buffalo, NY, Deckhand
Truman, Leon R., 45, Toledo, OH, Coal Passer
Wieme, Albert P., 51, Knife River, MN, Watchman
Worcester, Donald E., 38, Columbia Falls, ME, Oiler
The remains of 25 of the 28 lost crewmen were eventually recovered, most in the days following the sinking, although bodies from the Morrell continued to be found well into the spring of the following year. The three men whose bodies were never recovered were declared legally dead in May 1967.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Daniel_J._Morrell (References at Link)

References and Additional Information:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Daniel_J._Morrell http://www.guideposts.org/inspiration/mysterious-ways/sole-survivor?page=full http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/WI.morrell http://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg545/docs/boards/danmorrell.pdf http://www.disastercity.info/titanic/index.shtml http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Ponaganset_(AO-86)
Graveyard of the Lakes by Mark L. Thompson, Wayne State U. Press, 2000
(This book is available as an ibook and focuses on the real causes of ship wrecks and how they could have been prevented)
The only survivor also has a book which may be ordered:
Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor
An Autobiography
by Dennis Hale