CHICAGO — Just before the dangerously cold temperatures set in across the Midwest this week, Michael Belz was occupied with thoughts of his son Gerald, an 18-year-old in his first year at the University of Iowa.
Classes at the university had been canceled. Campus was only a half-hour away from the Belz home in Cedar Rapids. But Gerald had opted to stay put and wait out the cold snap in his dorm.
“At the time, I thought that was the smart move,” Michael Belz said, remembering that his son had trouble getting his truck started the weekend before. “I didn’t want him to get stuck somewhere driving. So he decided he would stay.”
Early Wednesday morning, as the temperatures were plummeting, Gerald Belz was found unconscious outside a campus building, a short walk from his dorm. He died later at a hospital. Investigators believe his death was related to the subzero temperatures that plunged Iowa and all of the Midwest into a miserable and dangerous cold snap this week.
He is one of at least 20 people whose deaths, government officials say, are believed to be related to the bitter weather system that has paralyzed the region. The frigid conditions have sent scores of people to hospitals with symptoms of hypothermia or frostbite, and have closed businesses, schools and many colleges.
Many of the deaths, which occurred since Sunday, were still being investigated, and precise causes had not yet been established. But officials said in each case that they believed the weather had played a role.
Among those who have perished, according to local coroners, police and fire departments and other officials: Four men found frozen near their homes in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan; six people who died in traffic crashes in Iowa; a pedestrian hit with a snowplow in Libertyville, Illinois; and a woman found frozen to death inside a Milwaukee apartment after the thermostat malfunctioned.
In the Buffalo, New York, area, one person died Thursday while using a snowblower, and another was found dead after shoveling. Earlier in the week, a married couple in their 20s died in Indiana in a car crash, a man in Milwaukee was found dead in his garage after shoveling and a man died of hypothermia in Evanston, Illinois.
In Williamsville, New York, outside Buffalo, a homeless man was pronounced dead after being discovered inside a bus shelter Thursday morning. Helen Tederous, a spokeswoman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which is investigating the death, said that the man, Lawrence Bierl, 69, had been a fixture in suburban Buffalo for years.
“He was a real gentle soul,” she said. “He would talk to people a lot. People got to know him.”
An official cause of death had not been determined, but Tederous and a county official said it appeared to be related to the cold.
Since the polar air mass set in, several cities have hit record low temperatures, and it appeared that Illinois may have broken the state’s all-time low: A weather observer in Mount Carroll, Illinois, recorded a temperature of minus 38 degrees Fahrenheit on Thursday morning.
In Rockford, Illinois, temperatures dipped to minus 31, colder than the previous record of minus 27 from 1982. Moline, Illinois, also broke a record, reaching minus 33, according to the National Weather Service. So did Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with minus 30.
Officials across the Midwest told of harrowing rescues and perilous situations. The Illinois State Police assisted more than 1,300 drivers over one eight-hour period, and the Coast Guard used air boats to rescue seven people stranded in an ice shanty on Lake Michigan off Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. A Coast Guard ship sliced through the ice on Lake Huron to rescue a woman needing medical attention on Mackinac Island, Michigan. And in Wheeling, Illinois, nine members of a family, including a 2-month-old infant, were hospitalized for carbon monoxide exposure after apparently trying to keep their house warm using a charcoal grill in addition to the furnace.
The weather forecast suggested that some relief was ahead for the Midwest, with temperatures expected to poke above zero by Thursday night. But forecasters warned of a continuing cold wave in the Northeast, with heavy snow in some places and subzero wind chills in others.
In Iowa, the Belz family said it was awaiting more information from police about Gerald’s death, and University of Iowa officials said that counselors had been made available to help students.
On Monday, the university had canceled classes for part of Tuesday, all of Wednesday, and Thursday morning because of the weather. Michael Belz said he had no idea what his son might have been doing that took him outside his dorm room in the early morning hours Wednesday.
Officials at the local medical examiner’s office said they had performed an autopsy, but did not have final results and would not release information on the cause of death until they did. University of Iowa police said their investigation was continuing, but that Gerald Belz’s death was believed to be related to the weather.
A pre-med student, he had been in contact with his girlfriend, Leeanne Mehring-Cruz, through text messages and Snapchat video in the hours before he died, but had dropped off social media around 1 a.m.
Mehring-Cruz, who lives in Cedar Rapids, said she had been seeing Gerald Belz for two years. She described him as sweet and brilliant, someone who only showed his soft side to his closest family and friends. One of the last things he wrote that last night, she said in an interview conducted over Twitter, was that he loved how she was always there for him through everything.
“I wish I could have protected him then,” she said.
Mehring-Cruz said she is hoping police will quickly find out where he was going and what happened to him. “I have no clue what he was doing,” she said. “The last messages we sent were I love you’s and good night’s.”
Michael Belz said Gerald, the older of his two sons, was careful and compassionate, studious and avid rugby player who wanted to become a doctor. He was already ahead in his college studies because he had completed Advanced Placement classes in high school.
He played football in high school, but then turned to rugby. “He loved it, much to the chagrin of his mother, who wanted to protect him and keep him safe,” the father said. “He had a great time with it.”
The Belzes last saw their son Sunday evening, when he was visiting home. Snow had started to fall, and Michael Belz urged him to head back to campus before things got too slippery.
So Gerald gathered up his things, said his goodbyes and drove back to his dorm. Around 10 p.m., he called his mother to give her the customary assurance: He had arrived safely.