CNN Senior National Editor
Marvin E. Schur, a 93-year-old World War II veteran, was home alone in Michigan when he froze to death.
As he was laid to rest yesterday, a group of flag-carrying motorcycle riders made certain that Schur's service to his country was remembered.
Members of the Patriot Guard Riders, motorcyclists whose mission is to attend the funeral of every U.S. military veteran, flanked the entrance of the Bay City funeral home. They, like people across the country, were shocked by the circumstances of Schur's passing.
Schur died "a slow, painful death," the medical examiner said, as the temperature in his home fell below the freezing mark of 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
While the exact circumstances remain under investigation, the municipal utility company is dealing with the fallout from having restricted the flow of electricity into Schur's house because the retired pattern maker owed more than $1,000 in unpaid bills – during a week of frigid temperatures, of nights well below zero degrees.
"Now that we do know it was hypothermia, there's a whole bunch of feelings that I've got going through me," Jim Herndon, a neighbor of Schur's, told CNN television affiliate television WNEM earlier in the week. "There's anger, for the city and the electrical company."
Schur was found dead on Jan. 17th. A few weeks earlier, the utility company had sent Schur a notice by mail warning that his power could be cut off for non-payment. Another notice apparently was placed on the front door when the "limiter" was installed on Jan. 13, but no city worker made face-to-face contact with the man. The device cut off Schur's electricity when use surpassed a set amount.
Neighbors said that on Schur's kitchen table they found a utility bill with a large amount of money attached, a sign that he intended to make payment.
Local news media reported that Schur's wife, Marian I. (Meisel) Schur, a retired elementary-school teacher, died several years ago and that the couple had no children.
The high temperature on Jan. 13 at nearby Saginaw, Mich., was 23 degrees, the low was minus 4. The next three days were even colder, the low dropping to minus 10 on the 14th. On Jan. 17, the day Schur was found, the high temperature was 17 degrees, the low was minus 2, wind speeds reached 29 mph and more than four inches of fresh snow was on the ground. Since Jan. 17, eight deaths in Michigan have been attributed to the cold.
Schur's body was discovered by neighbor George Pauwels Jr. "His furnace was not running, the insides of his windows were full of ice the morning we found him," Pauwels told the Bay City News.
The medical examiner said that in a career of some 15,000 autopsies it was the first time he had seen someone die of "hypothermia" while indoors.
The case raises so many questions. Are you outraged? Do you shake your head with disbelief? Do you chalk it up to life as we know it today and move on? Do you think about your elderly relatives and neighbors? How do we respond?
In the aftermath of Schur's death, Bay City Electric Light & Power has removed some 60 "limiters" it had installed because of payment problems. "It has never been our intention to put anyone at risk," Phil Newton, the electric department director, told me. In 28 years in the electric utility field he has never experienced anything like Schur's case. His staff "is doing a lot of soul searching," asking, "Could this have been avoided?"
Problems paying utility bills are increasing, not only in Bay City – "Absolutely, we started to see it last winter," Newton said – but nationally.
Americans are paying utilities bills averaging $971 per household this winter, down $19 from a year ago, according to the government. The cost of oil has dropped to a level unimaginable a year ago, but only about 8 percent of households still use oil for heat.
Across the country, families once confident of their financial situation are finding themselves in unimaginable straits. Are we taking in these numbers, and the plight of these people? Food banks, social service agencies homeless shelters – all report a spike in customers.
The number of families seeking help paying utility bills this winter is 7.3 million, up 1.5 million or 25 percent, from a year earlier, and 9 percent more than the record number set in 1985, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association. Three states posted triple-digit increases from a year earlier in the numbers of people needing assistance paying their energy bills: Texas, up 201 percent; Florida, up 200 percent and California, up 162 percent.
In response, Congress has doubled to $5.1 billion the money available from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Meanwhile, Bay City Electric Light & Power is reviewing how Schur's payment problem was handled and what procedures should be changed. "We're going to make sure this can't ever happen again," said Newton.
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