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The ones we lost: At least 22 people in Dallas County alone lost their lives to the February 2021 winter storm

Across Texas, at least 246 people died as a result of Feb. 2021's deep freeze. A year later, WFAA met with three families still reeling over the loved ones they lost

DALLAS — They were found outside, covered in ice. 

Some were in vehicles, where they had been living. Others were in apartments or houses that had been without power for so many days that being inside felt nearly as cold as being outside.

A few people died of carbon monoxide inhalation, so desperate for heat that they used gas-powered generators inside their homes and were poisoned by the exhaust fumes.

Perhaps strangest of all, some who froze to death during last year’s winter storm were found with no clothes – a medical phenomenon called "paradoxical undressing." (More on that later.)

In all, state officials estimate that last February’s winter storm killed 246 people in Texas. More than half died of hypothermia, meaning they froze to death. 

Many of the dead were homeless. But many were not.

139 hours

North Texas spent 139 straight hours below freezing, the fifth-longest stretch in state history.

"The storm just hit like a monster," said Sandra Benson. 

Benson's brother Donald Smith is one of the 246 people who died in Texas that week. 

Benson describes her 63-year-old brother as her family's comedian and grill master. He was also homeless. 

When the storm hit, his family agonized for days, calling and searching for him.

"We were worried that you haven’t heard from him but [we tried to] keep a positive mind that he's OK," Benson said.

Donald Smith's body was found the morning of Feb. 16. He was lying in the snow near a restaurant on Northwest Highway in Dallas, according to his medical examiner report. The overnight temperature was 3 degrees, records show.

'They probably did not stand a chance'

Alan Brockelman still feels the loss of his mother, Kimberly Smith, who is of no relation to Donald Smith. 

Last February, Brockelman was caring for his 56-year-old mom at their shared Dallas home, where she was confined to a medical bed. 

A long-time nurse, Smith was paralyzed, a cancer survivor and a lupus warrior.

"It was the second day in, and we lost power," Brockelman said. "[Power was] everything -- her bed, the heat and things she needs most."

They lost power for 40 hours, and Brockelman watched as his mother deteriorated after getting pneumonia. She eventually died at a hospital.

In Dallas County alone, 22 people died as a result of the February 2021 winter storm.

"They probably did not stand a chance," said Dr. Amy Gruszecki, an independent forensic pathologist. "The temperatures were that frigid and that cold."

Dr. Gruszecki said that hypothermia cases are very common in cold weather events. Hypothermia is a condition where the body loses heat faster than it can produce it. It is a process that can take hours or even minutes, depending on the environment and the victim's medical history.

"That shivering response is the body’s attempt to generate heat... literally by shaking itself," Dr. Gruszecki said.

The core body temperature drops. Shivering turns to shallow breathing, which turns into a systematic shutdown of the heart, nervous system and organs.

"The internal organs would have that pinkish discoloration," she said.

Paradoxical undressing

The medical reports reveal another sad reality.

In Dallas County, five of the deaths involved "paradoxical undressing," which one medical journal describes as an “irrational behavior in exposure to cold.”

"They start to hallucinate, they get confused and they start to feel warm even though they are far from warm," Dr. Gruszecki said. 

It occurs in one out of five hypothermia cases, Dr. Gruszecki added.

Shedding clothes in extreme cold, as you might expect, only speeds up death.

'A fighting chance'

Like so many others across the state, the storm knocked the power out at the apartment of Raymond Jaimes, a middle brother called "Chito" by his family. 

His siblings fear Jaimes, cold and epileptic, became confused late at night and ventured outside. His body was found near Parkland Hospital.

"This was the night it had hit below zero," his sister Aurora Bagby said. 

Bagby's mother asked Jaimes' neighbors if they knew what happened to her son. One allegedly told her they heard someone crying for help at 2 a.m. but didn't do anything about it.

"A phone call would have saved his life," Bagby said. "He would have had a fighting chance."

Profits over people

Majed Nachawati, of Fears | Nachawati Law Firm, said he is prepared for a legal fight that is just now getting started. His firm represents 100 families who had a loved one die, as well as 7,000 homeowners and business owners also impacted by the storm.

"They froze to death in hallways, they froze to death in chairs, without anyone there," Nachawati said.

Nachawati's firm represents Kimberly Smith's family. The suit names ERCOT, the Texas power grid operator, as well as other gas and power companies across the state as defendants. Nachawati argues they put profits over people.

Credit: Texas Department of Health and Human Services
A county-by-county map representing deaths in the February 2021 winter storm

"When you combine irresponsibility at the government levels with deregulations gone awry, bad things happen," Nachawati said.

Brockelman said that the power was supposed to stay on at their home because of his mother’s declining health.

"I just feel like I was lied to," Brockelman said. "I just want to know who’s lying to me and who’s not."

WFAA reached out to ERCOT in response to these allegations. ERCOT’s media relations team returned this response: "We are unable to comment on pending litigation."

Still a tough pill to swallow

Last week, Sandra Benson and her family returned to the area of Northwest Highway and Abrams where their brother Donald's body was found. 

The family cannot believe it’s already been a year.

"It’s hard," Benson said. "It’s painful and hurtful when you think about it."

Near Parkland, where Jaimes' body was found, a memorial stands a year after his death. His family wrapped lights around a utility pole and hung a picture of their loved one on it.

"We want people to know his name," said sister Priscilla Jaimes. "We won’t get to see him grow old."

To know that a loved one died this way is hard enough. But when you realize they could've not died at all, it makes it even more difficult.

"It's a combination of both frustration and anger," Benson said.

It was a storm we knew was coming. And it still hurt us this deeply.

There are 246 reasons this cannot happen again. 

"I lost my mom, my best friend," Brockelman said. "She’s my angel now."

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