Final Survivor Prepares to Visit Wreckage of Carl D. Bradley
Aug. 11, 1995
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) _ Frank Mays watched in horror the night of Nov. 18, 1958, as a raging tempest hurled the freighter Carl D. Bradley into the black, frigid depths of Lake Michigan.
For 15 hours Mays clung to a life raft, his limbs numb with cold and exhaustion, his hair encrusted with ice. The raft was battered by 25-foot waves that repeatedly flung Mays and three buddies into the churning sea.
``I believed all the time we'd make it ... if we could just last through the night,'' Mays said recently.
Two of the men were lost before daybreak, but shortly thereafter a Coast Guard cutter rescued Mays and First Mate Elmer Fleming. Only later did they learn the awful truth: Of the 35-man crew, they alone had survived the sinking of the 623-foot limestone carrier.
Nearly 37 years later, Mays is preparing for a pilgrimage to the Bradley's underwater grave. The wreckage is believed to lie under 380 feet of water, roughly 34 miles off Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan.
``I saw it break up and I'd like to see what it looks like in its final resting place,'' said Mays, 63, the only living survivor since Fleming's death in 1970.
The first submarine expedition to the Bradley will be led by Fred Shannon, a Great Lakes explorer and documentary filmmaker. A crew of about 30 was to depart tonight aboard a chartered barge.
They will spend several days viewing and photographing the Bradley from a two-person submersible, which Shannon used last summer to view the wreckage of the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior.
``I'm not going down there to look for any bodies,'' said Mays, who was scheduled for a 1 1/2-hour dive Saturday morning. ``I know it's upsetting to some people, but it's not why I'm doing this. I just want to see the wreckage.''
Shannon's dive to the Fitzgerald last year created controversy after he announced the first sighting of human remains at the site. Angry relatives of the 29 lost crewmen accused him of exploiting the disaster for commercial gain.
Sharon Hein, daughter of a missing Bradley crewman, says this weekend's visit is tantamount to desecrating a grave. She contacted state and federal officials in a failed attempt to block the mission.
``My biggest fear is they'll see a body, take a picture ... just make a circus out of it,'' said Mrs. Hein.
She lives in the small Lake Huron town of Rogers City, the Bradley's home port. Twenty-six of the crewmen lived there or nearby. Few others in the town have spoken publicly against the dive, and many locals favor it, said the Rev. Ray Mulka, a native who knew many of the lost crewmen.
``They view this as part of the grieving process ... helping bring it to a close,'' Mulka said.
Shannon promises to conduct the visit with sensitivity.
``Nobody on any of our expeditions has set out to cause any hurt or distress, but we must be about the scientific work of appraising these deep-water wrecks,'' he said.
The Coast Guard report on the Bradley concluded that the ship had broken up, but the cause of the disaster was unclear. The report said hairline cracks had been discovered in the vessel's underbody the previous year, possibly indicating structural weakness.
U.S. Steel Corp., parent company of the ship's owner, has maintained that the Bradley, built in 1927, did not break apart. It says it has underwater video footage showing the ship intact. U.S. Steel eventually paid $1.25 million to settle 35 lawsuits over the wreck.
The Bradley's fateful voyage began after it dropped off 12,000 tons of limestone in Gary, Ind. As the ship steamed north toward Rogers City, it encountered one of the November gales that have doomed many a Great Lakes vessel. Winds reached 60 mph; 30-foot waves hammered the ship. Still, the Bradley seemed in no danger.
Around 5:40 p.m., Mays suddenly heard ``a real loud thud.'' He fought his way topside and saw the entire aft section sagging.
Fleming radioed an SOS: ``Mayday, Mayday ... we are in serious trouble ... we're breaking up!'' Captain Roland Bryan shouted to his crew to put on life jackets. Mays says the ship snapped in two and the forward end rolled over, flinging him into the water _ mercifully, within reach of the raft he had just untied.
The bow section quickly sank, he said. The stern followed minutes later, erupting into a steaming fireball as the frigid waters met the white-hot boilers. ``Then it was completely dark,'' Mays said.
The tragedy drove Mays to abandon his career as a mariner, and he later retired to Spring Hill, Fla., after working at a lumber company. He isn't bitter that U.S. Steel doubted his story, but wants to set the record straight.
``It's like me telling you that what you saw with your own eyes wasn't right,'' he said.