The Heat Is Online

Boston Heads for 100-year Cold Snap

Bitter cold may have turned deadly

The Boston Globe, Jan. 22, 2003

As he sat in his chilly apartment watching home videos of relatives frolicking in the tropical heat of the Dominican Republic, 20-year-old Wilkins Diaz winced and wrapped his navy down jacket a little tighter around his neck.

''We have no heat for two weeks,'' he told a Boston housing inspector yesterday afternoon. ''We turn the stove on to stay warm.''

Diaz and his mother were one of about 25 households yesterday that called the inspectors to complain of no heat, city officials said. The city has fielded nearly 500 such calls since September, but officials expect that number to skyrocket during the next few days as the mercury plunges the region further into the deep freeze.

Boston has been freezing - literally - since Jan. 13, the last time the mercury rose above 32 degrees. And forecasters at the National Weather Service said tonight's lows were expected to hit zero with a wind chill factor of 30 to 40 below zero. This could turn into the worst extended cold snap in Boston in more than 100 years, the Weather Service said.

The cold may have already claimed one life. An 83-year-old man was found dead yesterday under Interstate 93 in the South End, an apparent victim of the cold, officials said. Bob Gurney, a Korean War veteran, had insisted on staying in a makeshift shanty of construction signs and cardboard, officials said.

State Police found him around 4:30 p.m. near the Albany Street exit. There were no signs of foul play, and exposure was one suspected cause. ''It's been very cold,'' said Lieutenant Ronald Sieberg. ''That will be one thing they are looking at.''

Outreach workers in a van for Pine Street Inn feared more would perish, counting at least 60 people on the streets who had refused their offers of shelter last night.

''It's very dangerous out here,'' said Sean Whelan, an outreach worker.

Another resident of the shanty was taken to New England Medical Center with a cold-related illness, said a spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney's office.

To help prevent further loss of life, Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced yesterday that he had authorized use of four additional inspectors in anticipation of the extreme cold weather. Inspectors check temperatures in residences and try to contact landlords to have problems fixed. If heat inside is too low - below 68 degrees during the day or 64 degrees at night - the city can relocate residents until the repairs are made.

''The city will step up to the plate and do whatever is necessary to make sure no one is living in freezing conditions,'' said Kevin Joyce, commissioner of the Inspectional Services Department.

Shelters and hospitals also kept a vigil for those who suffer the most during times of extreme cold: the homeless and the elderly.

''We have already seen several cases of mild frostbite,'' said Dr. Michael Filbin, an emergency room physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Almost all of the 15,000 low-income households in Boston, Brookline, and Newton that receive federal fuel assistance have already used up their benefits, according to Action for Boston Community Development.

Richard Weintraub, director of homeless services of the Boston Public Health Commission, said the homeless shelters have been using their overflow capacity of 90 beds all winter, in addition to the more than 800 full-time beds. So far, he said, no one has been turned away. ''Could you refuse somebody? The answer is no,'' he said. ''We have to find a place for everybody. We are all overcrowded, but overcrowding is better than freezing outside.''

Students were sent home early yesterday from Hull High School after a clog in a gas line disrupted the building's new heating system, said principal Russell Goyette.

Foxborough students also missed a few hours of school due to lack of heat yesterday when a transformer blew, cutting off electricity and, with it, the heat.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 1/22/2003.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.