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Published November 02, 2010, 10:46 AM

Coast Guard vet involved In ‘bizarre’ ship disaster

STREETER, N.D. — Paul Nyren seems looks like a landlubber in his cowboy boots, but he has a nautical background and a famous story.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

STREETER, N.D. — Paul Nyren seems looks like a landlubber in his cowboy boots, but he has a nautical background and a famous story.

On the afternoon of Nov. 29, 1966, young Paul Nyren was serving with the Coast Guard in Northbrook, Ill., as a radio operator — technically the man in charge of the service’s communications — when the 600-foot ore ship S.S. Daniel J. Morrell went missing on Lake Huron. Nyren stayed near his post for more than two days, scrambling to keep communications between headquarters in Cleveland and the ships doing search and rescue.

The Morrell’s sinking was “bizarre,” by news accounts.

The lake-going vessel was carrying only ballast when a storm came up at about 2 a.m. The vessel was caught in 70-mph winds and 25-foot waves and was heading for Thunder Bay, when it broke in two. As crew members tried to debark into the life rafts on the front of the ship, the back half was still under power and kept slamming into the front half, finally sinking it.

Twenty-eight crew members died.

“There was one survivor, an off-duty cook,” Nyren recalls.

On Nov. 30, at 4 p.m., a Coast Guard helicopter located Dennis Hale, 26, alive in a life raft, covered by three dead comrades. According to news accounts, he had on a pair of boxer shorts, a life vest and a pea coat.

An odd thing: In Nyren’s front yard these days is a yellow boat decorated with big, Coast Guard logos. It’s not near a Great Lake, or an ocean, but it’s part of a federal study on climate change, being done in Streeter, N.D.

Jaime Toney, a graduate student of geology at Brown University in Rhode Island, is studying climate change. Three years ago, Toney approached Nyren for help in looking at algae growth in “salt” or alkaline lakes in the closed pothole lakes in the prairie Coteau region.

These algae produce a protein that is very temperature-dependent and is deposited in sediments, creating layers and a record, something like tree rings.

“The longer the water is at that temperature, the longer it gets deposited in sediments,” Nyren says.

Two years ago in February, Toney and her colleagues went onto the ice, drilled a hole and took soil core samples from the bottom of the lake, going back over a record of more than 10,000 years, Nyren says. Lake George is the deepest natural lake in North Dakota, about 150 feet at its deepest point.

What’s with the Coast Guard boat?

Well, Nyren explains, once a week in the spring and summer, Streeter station staffers take a boat out on Lake George (locally called “Salt Lake”) to take water samples from the surface, at 5 meters deep and at 10 meters deep. The water samples go to the lab where the algae is filtered out, frozen and sent to Toney’s the lab for analysis.

Initially, Nyren volunteered his own lake boat for the project, but didn’t relish running it on saltwater. A U.S. Coast Guard boat came up on the federal surplus list, and the project acquired it.