The April 2024 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Couple Dead For Lack of a Signal

Elderly couple perishes when they can’t summon help with their cellular phone

2 min read

Couple Dead For Lack of a Signal

For many people, cellphones aren’t just a mode of communication, they’re lifelines. Sure, we laugh or roll our eyes at stories about people who are seemingly addicted to their "Crackberries," and get annoyed at the loud talker on the bus or the gem of a person who’ll answer calls in a movie theater. Still, it’s clear that cellphones solve more problems than they create. That is, unless you desperately need to make a call and find yourself in a dreaded dead zone.

That was the tragic situation that befell Arthur and Madeleine Morris, an elderly New York City couple whose vehicle fell down an embankment near the end of the driveway of their vacation home in New York’s Catskills region. After it became clear that the car was stuck, they made five unsuccessful attempts to call for help.  Calls to 911, Madeleine’s son, and a neighbor failed to connect because of spotty cellular reception in the sparsely-populated rural area. From what investigators have been able to piece together, Arthur Morris then attempted to climb out of the vehicle, but got wedged between the bottom of the door and the ground. He soon died of asphyxiation. His wife managed to get out, but four additional attempts to use the cellphone proved fruitless.

After giving up on technology, she walked to the home of their closest neighbors. Finding them already gone, and unsure of what else to do, Madeleine covered herself with a tarp to protect herself against the rain, but died of hypothermia after nighttime temperatures dipped into the forties.

Two sentences in a CNET News article encapsulate the level of faith (misplaced or not) we’ve come to place in technology:

“…their grandson had bought them a phone from AT&T, in the belief that a network from such a large carrier would offer the best chance of a signal in that remote area. But locals reportedly say no carrier has much of a signal in those mountains.”

As someone who lives less than an hour from where the Morrises’ were unable to reach out and touch someone (as AT&T prompted people to do years ago in its commercials), I fully understand frustration over spotty coverage. When I’m at home, my handset (with service through a different carrier) can receive calls and text messages on alternate Thursdays—but only when I stand on one foot while facing the sun.  On cloudy days, well, it’s good to have a landline.

For its part, AT&T responded to the CNET article with a brief statement:

“Our thoughts and sympathies go out to the Morris family during this extremely difficult time. Wireless coverage in mountainous and remote areas is an industrywide challenge, and AT&T, along with other carriers, are continually striving to improve service levels in those areas.”

In other words, don't hold your breath waiting for AT&T or any other carrier to erect cell towers simply for the public good. If they cannot justify that cost in terms of the number of customers on their subscriber rolls or potential customers they can add, don't look for them to surmount that "industrywide challenge" anytime soon. 

The Conversation (0)