Remembering the crew of the Carl D. Bradley

Advance video from commemoration of 50th anniversary of Bradley disaster. Produced November, 2008.

(From the November 27, 1958 edition of the Presque Isle County Advance.)

(Editor’s note: The following is a factual account of known events surrounding the sinking of the Steamer Carl D. Bradley, and is based on information from the survivors and first-hand accounts of testimony given to the Coast Guard Board of Inquiry.)

At approximately 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 18, 1958, all was well aboard the Str. Carl D. Bradley, heading toward her home port of Calcite. Captain Roland O. Bryan had asked the cooks to serve an early dinner. He knew the turn from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron would put the heavy weather broadside of the ship, and he wanted to give the mess crew an opportunity to clean up and secure prior to this turn.

The crew messroom was full of joking, talking crewmen, eager as always to be returning home.

THE LAKE was extremely rough and the winds were high, but no rougher or higher than in many other storms which the Bradley had encountered in her 31-year history. Besides, it was a following sea.

The giant vessel rode the heavy seas through upper Lake Michigan with no hint of laboring. So evenly did she ride the great waves that her forward crewmembers walked the deck to the dining room in the afterend, disdaining the tunnel, which is normally used as a precautionary measure in rough weather.

Suddenly, there was a “loud thud” and, within a few minutes, the great ship slid beneath the water.

Despite the fact that it is believed time was sufficient for all hands to abandon ship before she plunged downward, 33-crew members met death in the murky waters.

THERE WERE but two fortunate survivors. That day long will be remembered as the most disastrous in the history of Rogers City.

At 5:28 that afternoon, a distress call from the ill-fated steamer broke the air and was heard by the Charlevoix Coast Guard Station.

“The ship is breaking in half. We are going down. We are 12 miles southwest of Gull Island.”

That was all.

Only minutes before, a routine message had been transmitted to the Str. Bradley by Central Radio Telegraph at Rogers City. She was then possibly 50 miles north and east of Charlevoix.

The Bradley, second largest of the Bradley Transportation Line fleet of nine vessels, was upbound from Gary, Indiana, in ballast.

FIRST MATE Elmer Fleming — who with Frank Mays alone survived — had walked the deck to the dining room aft, had eaten and returned. He noticed nothing amiss.

Mays, after finishing his dinner, had performed several routine chores. He had gone to the tunnel under the cargo to operate the pump in the sump.

He returned forward through the tunnel, detecting no hint of the terror that was to come.

He told a Coast Guard Board of Inquiry that later he was below deck in the conveyor room with deckhand Gary Price when the “loud thud” warned them of danger. They raced topside.

Meanwhile, Captain Bryan and Fleming, on watch in the pilothouse, also heard the same sickening sound.

“WE TURNED to see what it was and it wasn’t hard to see we were in trouble,” Fleming said. “The stern of the ship was sagging. I knew right then we were going to sink.”

First Mate Fleming grabbed the radio-telephone, shouted the “mayday” warning repeatedly, and gave the boat’s position.

“The ship is breaking in half,” he called frantically: “We’re going down.”

Instantly, Captain Bryan sounded the general alarm, grabbed the Chadburn to signal the stopping of the ship and blew the whistle to abandon ship.

Fleming and Mays later told the Coast Guard the vessel broke in two and sank within a matter of minutes.

Fleming suddenly realized that he had no life jacket. He raced to his stateroom two decks below, picked up a life jacket and returned to the deck of the pilot house where the life raft was located.

HE COULD see the captain and some other man pulling themselves along the railing to the high side of the bow section which was now listing to port. The winches on the main deck were awash when suddenly the ship lurched, throwing Fleming into the water.

When he came up, the bow was gone; he was near the raft, and he saw the stern of the ship swing to port, and then, with propeller high in the air, plunge to her grave, with lights burning. As the stern plunged, an explosion and flash of flame indicated that the water had reached the fire in the boilers.

He and Mays reached the raft and climbed on as it tossed about.

Two other men reached the raft. They were Gary Strzelecki, of Rogers City, a deckwatchman, and Dennis Meredith, deckhand, of Metz. During the night of terror, filled with mountainous waves and howling winds, the raft was upset on several occasions. The four became two.

‘I CAN’T remember how may times I fell from the raft,” said Fleming. “I swallowed a lot of water but I always managed to get back to it.”

Mays said, “There was never any doubt in my mind that someone would find us if we could last through the night. I prayed every minute of the time. I got pretty scared when I found there was ice forming in my hair and there was ice encrusted on my jacket; but I still felt that if we were still on the raft by morning, someone would surely find us. When I was on the raft, I laid face down and gripped the sides of it with my hands.”

Mays and Fleming were picked up the next morning near High Island, some 20 miles from the spot where the Bradley went down 14 hours before. They were exhausted but, according to doctors who examined them, in amazingly good physical condition considering their ordeal.

THE COAST Guard had responded to the Bradley’s distress call immediately. The 180-foot cutter Sundew raced to the disaster area and searched all night. At one time, according to the survivors, a searching vessel passed within half a mile of the raft, but the roar of the wind and sea made their shouts for help futile and the vessel plowed on.

Soon after dawn on the day after the tragedy, word was flashed that two survivors aboard a raft had been picked up by the Sundew. Elmer Fleming and Frank Mays had miraculously survived. Corpsmen ministered to the men while the Sundew continued her search.

The Sundew and the other rescue vessels arrived at Charlevoix after dark with the two survivors — the only men to survive the tragedy on the lake.