Wisconsin State Journal staffer dies in cold

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Posted by madcityradio.com on December 23, 2008 at 08:08:47:

Deaths of State Journal carrier, Sheboygan County man reveal winter's danger


The weather-related deaths of two state men including a newspaper carrier who spent the night outside when his car got stuck served as sad reminders Monday of the dangers of extreme cold weather.

"You think it will never happen to you, but it can," said Tom Mooney, CEO of the Badger Chapter of the American Red Cross. "If a car breaks down, within five minutes, your body temperature begins to drop. It is key to tell people that it can happen to them."

Donald L. Blum, 54, of Monticello, died about 5 a.m. Monday at University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, his death caused by hypothermia resulting in heart failure, Green County officials said.

Blum, an independent contractor who delivered the Wisconsin State Journal, was found still conscious outside his 1995 Buick at about 9:30 a.m. Sunday on Silver Road, about three miles east of Monticello.

A Mount Pleasant snowplow driver spotted his car, which Blum told sheriff's deputies had gotten stuck in a snowdrift at about 2:30 a.m., shortly after beginning his delivery route.

Blum apparently started to walk the three miles to town, but then headed back to the car, deputies said. He was taken to Monroe Clinic Hospital and then to UW Hospital, where he died.

Temperatures in Monroe, just over 11 miles from Monticello, ranged from six below zero to 11 below zero, with wind chills as low as 36 below zero, between 2:30 and 9:30 a.m. Sunday, said Penny Zabel, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sullivan.

In addition to Blum, the dangerously bitter weather led to the death of a man in Sheboygan County, officials said.

Deputies say 48-year-old Robert Lewin, of Lima, died of exposure in a farm field about a half-mile from his home. A deputy found him at 8:15 a.m. Monday about 600 feet from his vehicle, which was stuck in a ditch.

Blum had been delivering the Sunday State Journal since May 2003 to 60 to 65 rural customers in the Monticello area. Jim Phillips, a manager whose district includes Blum's, said Blum was always a very dependable and professional carrier.

Green County Sheriff Randy Roderick encouraged anyone driving in winter weather to dress in layers and have additional clothing and gear available inside the vehicle including a hat, scarf and a mask. Safety experts also recommend an emergency kit including water, food, extra blankets and a flashlight.

"We talk about using caution and not driving unless you have to in poor weather conditions," Roderick said. "And have a cell phone if at all possible." Roderick said Blum, who was wearing winter outerwear, also had "other health-related conditions" that may have caused him problems being outside, in addition to dealing with the severe weather.

Blum's sister-in-law, Sandy Blum, said Donald Blum had a history of heart problems, though she wasn't sure if that contributed to his death.

She said he usually carried a cell phone with him when he delivered papers, but on Sunday he didn't have one. "He forgot his cell phone at home," she said. "For whatever reason, it wasn't in the right jacket."

She said hearing about how he became stranded in the cold outside has been very difficult for family members. Blum's parents, John and Elaine Blum, also live in Monticello, along with his two younger brothers, Michael and Todd.

"It's been quite a shock," Sandy Blum said. "It was pretty horrible. I think he tried to get help but wasn't able to."

Donald Blum was a quiet person who lived in Monticello his entire life, Sandy Blum said. He mostly kept to himself, she said, though he was close to his parents and his great-grandmother, when she was alive. "He had his own life," she said. "He loved to play cards. He spent many years riding motorcycle, though he had to give that up recently due to poor health."

On Sunday night, as Blum was being treated at UW Hospital, family members began to feel optimistic about his chances, even though his hands and feet had to be amputated. "He was alert and awake," Sandy Blum said. "But unfortunately, at about 1 a.m. (Monday), his parents started getting calls that he wasn't doing well."

Greg Hurley, a state operations manager for the State Journal's distribution, called Blum's death "a terrible tragedy."

He said that because the newspaper's delivery people work as independent contractors, the company cannot require certain safety measures. But Hurley said carriers understand it is acceptable to stop delivering papers if the weather makes it too dangerous.

"We had a lot of carriers that ran into the same weather problems (early Sunday), and they stopped and went back home and called their district managers to say they would go out later," Hurley said. "Customers know (papers may be late) when the weather is like that."

Mooney said incidents such as this show the need to educate the public about frigid temperatures.

"People don't always realize when it gets below zero, and you add in the wind chill, how dangerously cold it is out there," he said. "Your skin cannot handle it. Sometimes, breathing in the cold air, you can get overcome. That's why we need to educate the public and keep people safe."

Capital Times reporter Bill Novak, State Journal reporter Melanie Conklin and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

(Wisconsin State Journal)

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