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January 29th, 2009
09:53 AM ET

When we're so cold that heroes die

Snow piled up in Eau Claire, Michigan, earlier this week. Record lows were posted across the state.

Snow piled up in Eau Claire, Michigan, earlier this week. Record lows were posted across the state.

Dave Schechter
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.

soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. Annie Kate

    I can't believe a power company could do this when it knew that it was so cold. Have we lost all our humanity and now it is just about money? Its more important to make money than help our people? To me this is murder and should be tried as such.

    January 29, 2009 at 9:19 pm |
  2. Pat Canada

    The power company should be charged. How merciless can the world get? It's the same here. Our Veterans get no assistance in any area. Maybe we all need to ban together and storm the powers that be till something is done. Our electric rates went up 29% in the last year, 15% the year previous! Many citizens are cold and hungry and our Government allows the Electric Corp. a Monopoly to continue to bankrupt citizens so their Corp can enjoy a royal surplus!

    January 29, 2009 at 6:22 pm |
  3. jen

    This so sad! While it is so easy to point fingers at others, it remains difficult to point at oneself. Go ahead and blame the electric company, the neighbors, the family, but when all done blaming others, blame society.

    I'm still young, but, I remember as a kid, growing up, how we used to take care of each other! We knew our neighbors, we helped them out in times of need, we checked on the vulnerable, we simply cared! Now we attempt to deal with our own problems and try not to think of what others are going through. Now we are so absorbed in our own lives that we seldom think of others. Now we have turned a life of caring and being considerate into a life of selfishness and greed! I met an elderly lady who told me that the best thing about meals on wheels is that if she dies, she knows someone will find her within a week! Ask yourself if you know your neighbors, if you've checked in on the vulnerable. If you answer no then point your finger at yourself.

    January 29, 2009 at 4:18 pm |
  4. Theresa, Nickerson Ks

    I wonder how the gas/electric people, the decision-makers, can sleep at night, can look themselves in the mirror each day, for putting into place policies that dictate profits (read: greed) over the needs of our most vulnerable peoples. It makes me sick that this country revolves around the almight dollar. There was a time when compassion for your fellow man was the norm, not a rare trait exhibited among a few. What has this country come to? And, more to the point, what are we going to do turn it around? Can we go back; be compassionate caring individuals again? Or are we stuck worshiping the dollar, trying only to get more, worrying about our own fortunes instead of what the other guy is struggling to go through. In a country where so few control so much, we need to demand accountability. Unadulterated greed, like the power companies whose only concern isn't the customers but their bottom line, we the people need to take a stand. I think everyone in America should boycott paying their gas bills for the rest of the winter and see then what happens. Would the gas companies shut off all of America? If it meant profit-losses...most probably. And this saddens me. God keep Mr. Schur. Shame on the power companies whose only policy is greed. Shame on America whose only interest is self-interest.

    January 29, 2009 at 3:42 pm |
  5. Mary V., Salt Lake City, UT

    This is such a tragedy! BUT... this man is NOT THE ONLY VETERAN IN TROUBLE!

    Our Nation's streets are full of homeless Veterans, who sacrificed and served our Nation!

    WHY....... do we allow this? Where are the "flag-waving-support-the-troops-people"?

    NO...... Veteran, not a single one..... should suffer so!

    (And yes, I do my part by helping feed the homeless in my city)

    January 29, 2009 at 3:26 pm |
  6. EJ (USA)

    Maybe this is what the future holds for some of us.

    January 29, 2009 at 2:36 pm |
  7. Lisa

    We hear stories like this every year. And yes, we have become a rather callous society. I "chat" with a number of people who would say it was his own fault – he should have saved better or not relied on social security. The companies don't care if you're a senior living on a fixed income or a 2-income family making good money. I realize that these companies service a rather large amount of customers, but how hard is it to give a reduction in price to the seniors? We're all going to be there some day ourselves. How hard is it to notify customers about "averaging" their bills (so it's a steady amount all year rather than really low in the summer and really high in the winter)?

    We all share the blame. Especially in our profit-above-all society where we no longer value people as, well, people.

    January 29, 2009 at 2:29 pm |
  8. Jim,California

    How Many of Our Veterans are Homeless? How many are forced to live on meger retirement while Congress votes themselves Raises?
    I hear about the Plight of Criminals here ILLEGALLY but What about our own CITIZENS????????????????????? Those in Government from Mayors offices up to the White House need to get a CLEAR Message-
    TAKE CARE OF YOUR OWN PEOPLE FIRST- then you can send money to help others in the rest of the world.

    January 29, 2009 at 2:23 pm |
  9. EJ (USA)

    I think that deep down – many people who have lost their jobs and are nearing the end of their savings and/or unemployment – have a fear that something like this will happen to them. Many elderly people & disabled individuals who are living off of a few hundred dollars a month I'm sure have similar fears.

    January 29, 2009 at 2:23 pm |
  10. Andi

    The worst part about this is that everyone interviewed was 'shocked' and/or 'saddened' and changes in policy were made, but this brave American is still dead. After a few weeks, the government and utility companies will forget all about it and go back to business as usual.

    January 29, 2009 at 2:23 pm |
  11. Donna, Oregon

    It's necessary but not sufficient to call the utility company to task. We also have to look at ourselves. This man had no close family. His friends and neighbors were not in touch regularly enough to know there was a problem. He could just as easily been ill or broken a bone, and no one would have known. Some communities have volunteers who make daily calls on seniors to make sure they're okay. If your community has a program, consider joining it ... and if not, maybe it's time to start one. We can make a difference.

    January 29, 2009 at 1:16 pm |
  12. Carol B., Virginia

    What a sad story. It would be better if the company had made contact via phone or brief visit before turning off or cutting down on the heating source. Also, did he have any VA benefits he wasn't aware of that would help him with this? I heard that Citizens Oil provides help to qualifying residents, usually elderly or poor, in MA. RFK's son, Joe, is a champion of this cause. Shouldn't every state have an energy aid program?

    January 29, 2009 at 1:07 pm |
  13. Heather,ca

    No one and I mean no one should have to be deprived of the basic essentials in life! It says alot that this man froze to death in his own home! I dont care if the company is investigating and reveiwing the situation. It doesnt matter now. The man is dead. The odd thing is he wasnt homeless, he had a home. For some reason that I cant even begin to wrap my mind around they felt that freezing temperatures of winter were a great time to deny an old man the heat his body needed to survive. This is sick. Kinda of like Russia who likes politicize oil for heat during the winter.This shameful and disgraceful. I think the people directly involved in making the decision to allow him to freeze to death should be criminally charged with his death. All I can is this is just sick. Whatever happened to compassion and selflessness. I think this compaby needs to reevaluate what they are about. What they stand for. Their mission statement beyond making money. Because obviously they are definately missing something. You think about the real horrors of war this man saw. You think about how he found love, got married lived a long life. His wife dies. Fortunately, he is able to live in his own home and for the most part take care of himself and then he dies. But not from a long term illness or sudden heart attack. He froze to death in his own home. Its just sad. He may have not mattered to them, but he matters to all of us. I hope no one ever forgets him or what happened to him, so it never happens again.

    January 29, 2009 at 12:05 pm |
  14. Michelle

    Why didn't they work with him?
    There should have been help
    for a 93 year old veteran.

    January 29, 2009 at 12:03 pm |
  15. gayle mccauley Malden,Mass.

    Shamefully sad.

    January 29, 2009 at 11:54 am |
  16. Teresa, OH

    While I am sad to hear of Mr. Schur's passing: I think all of you are blaming things that shouldn't be blamed. The Neighbors? My neighbors live within 200 ft. and they would never check on me. Expect the ELECTRIC company to know how old the man is? what are they psychic? Perhaps someone DID knock on his door and he was hard of hearing? This is America: services are provided, if we dont pay, we lose the service. People are dying EVERY hour because they dont have money to pay for medical treatment here, and the doctors treating them DO know they are in dire straits. Yet, they dont get charged with negligent homicide.

    I know I sound like a *itch here, but we all could do a whole heckuva lot more toward helping our neighbors and those in need, but we sit here typing on computers about our outrage instead. Why was no one outraged that a 93 yr. old man was living alone and obviously not mentally ok enough to realize his bad situation? We all want to help AFTER THE FACT– a ONE TIME event. We dont want to exert effort every day and help someone do we? After all, this is America.

    January 29, 2009 at 11:49 am |
  17. Susan - Texas

    I don't think the neighbors are to blame for what the electric company did. Some elderly people are isolated and it is a shame. We, as a society, need to pay more attention to the weakest among us, including children and the elderly.

    January 29, 2009 at 11:38 am |
  18. William of Iowa

    In passing, Mr. Schur has taught us a lesson. This American defended our country, his wife taught countless thousands of later generations and for this, we return the effort by failing him in an hour of need. We are a society blinded by self-absorption. Let Mr. Schur's horrible death open our eye's to a plight facing many and give us the courage and character to reach out and help others now. Reason comes before, excuses after – let's stop making excuses.

    January 29, 2009 at 11:28 am |
  19. Jenny Ga

    Where were the neighbors. Why did't they check onhim. Seems that there is enough blame to go around.

    January 29, 2009 at 11:07 am |
  20. Kris

    This is a travesty! You mean to tell me no one from that electric company realized the age of this man and thought to maybe make a housecall about this issue. Ridiculous!

    January 29, 2009 at 11:01 am |
  21. Michael "C" Lorton,Virginia

    The right to life---the right to electricity-–now the electric company can mark Marvin E. Schur's bill--–paid in full. It just proves one point--In God We Trust--the rest pay cash-–and if you don't--asked Mr. Schur.

    January 29, 2009 at 10:32 am |
  22. earle,florida

    God bless you CNN for posting this story. There was a time in america that we actually had volunteers to help service these elderly people,but as everything else in this country regarding our fellow man, has become a thing of the past,..Thanks Truly,Thanks for making the public look in a mirror at themselves,and answer the question, what have I/we become?

    January 29, 2009 at 10:31 am |
  23. Ian - Edmonton, Alberta

    I think the power co had a duty to meet the customer in person to tell him. I believe in my city, it is illegal to cut off power during the winter.

    January 29, 2009 at 10:29 am |
  24. Jennifer - Michigan

    Man! In these hard times the utility companys should NOT be playing hard ball with these people, especially the elderly. This will be the result. The utility companys will have to accept IOU's for the winter months. It's so cold here in Michigan. This story is sad, what a mess!

    January 29, 2009 at 10:14 am |
  25. Cindy

    I saw this story yesterday and I just could not believe it!!

    I can't believe that the power company put a limiter on Schur's power and didn't even tell him that they did it. That to me is just ridiculous! How is anyone supposed to know to go and switch the power back on if they don't know the limiter is on to begin with!? I don't get the reasoning behind not knocking on his door or whomever elses door they did it to and letting them know they have added the device. Are they that stupid there!?

    And if his family thought that he was losing his mind then why didn't they looking on him more often and make sure he was paying his bills and all?

    Cindy...Ga.

    January 29, 2009 at 10:06 am |
  26. Mike, Syracuse NY

    Those who made the decision to cut off power should be charged with negligent homicide.

    January 29, 2009 at 10:05 am |
  27. tori

    This is a crime. This in the United States of America. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

    January 29, 2009 at 10:01 am |
  28. Bill Skeat

    Shame on the citizens of Baywater, MI, Shame on the Electric Company and shame on his family. While his family couldn't check on him while he was alive, I bet everyone will be at the lawyer's office when Mr. Schur's will is read!

    January 29, 2009 at 9:58 am |