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Outrage over freezing death

February 01, 2009|David Eggert | Eggert writes for the Associated Press.

BAY CITY, MICH. — When neighbors went inside Marvin Schur's house, the windows were frosted over, icicles hung from a faucet, and the 93-year-old World War II veteran lay dead on the bedroom floor in a winter jacket over four layers of clothing.

He froze to death -- slowly and painfully, authorities say -- days after the electric company installed a power-limiting device because of more than $1,000 in unpaid bills.

The old man's end has led to outrage, soul-searching and a resolve never to let something like this happen again.

"There's got to be a way in today's computer age they can find out if someone's over a certain age," said Chad Sepos, 37, who lives a block away in this Lake Huron city of 34,000 people about 90 miles from Detroit. "It's just sad."

One of the saddest ironies was that Schur appeared to have plenty of money, and, in fact, one of the neighbors who entered the home reported seeing cash clipped to a pile of bills on the kitchen table. Schur's nephew suggested the old man's mind may have been slipping.

Schur, or "Mutts," was a retired foundry worker who lived alone. His wife died a couple of years ago; they had no children. He could often be seen through the big front window of his comfortably furnished home, watching TV or keeping an eye on the neighborhood where he'd lived for at least 50 years.

On Jan. 13, a worker with the city-owned utility installed a "limiter" on Schur's electric meter after four months of unpaid bills. The device restricts power and blows like a fuse if usage rises past a set level. Electricity is not restored until the device is flipped back on by the homeowner, who must walk outside to the meter.

Bay City Electric Light & Power did not contact Schur in person to notify him of the device and explain how it works. It followed its usual procedure: leaving a note on the door. But neighbors said Schur rarely, if ever, left the house in the cold.

At some point, the device evidently tripped and was not reset, authorities said.

Schur's home was heated by a gas furnace, not electricity, but some gas furnaces do not work properly if the power is out.

Neighbors discovered Schur's body on Jan. 17. The outside temperature ranged from a high of 12 degrees to a low of minus 9 on Jan. 15, the day he is believed to have died. A heating pad was on his favorite armchair by the window. The oven door was open, perhaps to heat the place.

"The body has a tremendous fighting power for survival. He died a slow, painful death," said Dr. Kanu Virani, who performed an autopsy and found frostbite on Schur's foot. Investigators are trying to establish how long Schur was without electricity.

City officials are reviewing their procedures and in the meantime have suspended shutoffs and removed all limiters from homes.

The medical examiner is looking into whether Schur suffered from dementia. His nephew, William Walworth, said Schur told him two years ago that he had $600,000 in savings.

"It's definitely not a situation where money is an issue. The issue has to do with the mental faculties you have and your ability to make good decisions," said Walworth, 67, who lives in Ormond Beach, Fla.

"I think the utility's policies are horrible and insane," he added. "For 50 years he paid the bill on a regular basis and never had problems. If people would know who their customers are and take concern for their customers, maybe they'd go knock on the door and see if everything is OK."

Neighbors and others have posted messages on the Internet, complaining that it was a shabby way to treat a veteran and demanding that city employees be fired or prosecuted for not checking on Schur, who served as a medic in the South Pacific and received a Purple Heart. One blogger noted that a pet owner who leaves his dog outside to freeze can face charges.

Sharon Gire, director of the Michigan Office of Services to the Aging, said Schur's death was preventable. "He was one of Michigan's most vulnerable citizens in need," she said. "It is a tragedy that he had to suffer such a painful death."

Michigan's big, state-regulated utilities are not allowed to shut off power to senior citizens in the winter and must offer payment plans to the poor. State regulators also discourage the use of limiters. But Michigan's 41 smaller municipal utilities -- Bay City's included -- are not overseen by the state. Bay City Power has used the device for 18 years.

Schur's death has prompted Michigan lawmakers to start writing legislation that could ban the use of limiters by municipal utilities.

"The concern was particularly with elderly customers; they can be frail or confused," Public Service Commission spokeswoman Judy Palnau said. "Anything that can require some sort of mechanical intervention can be overwhelming."

Bay City Manager Robert Belleman said that he was "deeply saddened" by Schur's death and that State Police will investigate. But he also said neighbors have a responsibility to each other.

"I've said this before and some of my colleagues have said this: Neighbors need to keep an eye on neighbors," Belleman said. "When they think there's something wrong, they should contact the appropriate agency or city department."

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