Elderly couple's death blamed on lack of cell service

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By Pauline Li
An elderly Manhattan couple died in Andes on May 3, following a minor car accident at the bottom of their 60-foot driveway. Though they desperately tried to get help by placing nine cell- phone calls, help didn’t arrive in time, because there was no cell signal. The circumstances of their disaster attracted extensive coverage from New York City news media. “Learning that numerous 911 calls failed due to poor cellular coverage worsened the loss,” wrote their grandson Jeantet Fields, on his blog, fieldsnet.com. Fields, who is a technology instructor, said he bought his grandmother the cell phone on an AT&T plan to use in case of emergencies..

The accident, which state police have referred to as a “fender-bender,” occurred while Madeleine and Arthur Morris were backing out of the driveway of their country home on Woodland Hills Drive in Andes. It appears that Arthur, 88, lost control of the couple’s Ford Fusion. The car rolled nearly 15 feet down an embankment, struck a tree and landed tilted towards the driver’s side.

“My mother didn’t like technology,” said her son, Ronald Fields. “She rarely used her cell phone.” Nevertheless, Madeleine, 89, attempted to place nine urgent calls to 911, her son and a neighbor. When it became apparent that no cell service was available, the couple attempted to make their escape, with tragic results. The family believes that Arthur slipped and fell as he tried to get out of the car. His chest became pinned under the bottom of an open car door and he was asphyxiated as his air supply was cut off. According to Ronald Fields, his stepfather was in extremely poor health and had a severe heart problem

Madeleine climbed out of the car to get help on foot and left her cell phone behind. It’s not clear why she didn’t return to the house. Her family said she walked a quarter of a mile with her cane to a neighbor’s house, only to discover that the house was locked up and no one was home.  In an apparent attempt to protect herself from the elements, she wrapped herself in a blue plastic tarp from a woodpile. The next day, turkey hunters found Arthur’s body and alerted state police, who found Madeleine’s body on the neighbor’s patio, still wrapped in the tarp. An autopsy determined that she died from exposure.            

 Ironically, French-born Madeleine survived the Nazi occupation of France, but could not survive the tumultuous events that followed the minor car accident. The retired professor of French literature had worked at Queens College. She had two successful knee replacements and her family said she was mentally sharp. “Her doctor told her that she was in great shape and she should expect to live another 10 years,” said Jeantet Fields. She inspired her son, Ronald and her grandson, Jeantet, to become teachers.

Arthur, who was originally form Cambridge, Ohio, was a retired public school music teacher, who graduated from Juilliard. He was both a pianist and an organist. Madeleine was a young widow with two small boys when the couple married nearly 50 years ago. According to her son, the Morrises were inseparable and they were looking forward to vacationing in Annery, France next month. Instead, their ashes will be scattered there.

Originally, state police believed that Madeleine was driving, because they found Arthur’s wallet on the passenger side of the car, but according to the family the fact that Arthur’s lumbar back support cushion was found in place on the back of the driver’s seat indicated to them that Arthur was definitely behind the wheel.

The vacation home in Andes was the realization of Arthur’s dream. “They bought the home seven years ago with the inheritance that Arthur received from his parents,” said Ronald Fields. “He enjoyed the peace and quiet of the country.” At times, the family was able to get moderate cell service at the Morris’ home in Andes. “Sometimes I could get two bars on my cell from the living room,” said Ronald.

According to Glen Faulkner, the general manager of the Margaretville Telephone Company, that moderate cell signal may be coming from Delhi. He explained that it will probably take two years to bring cell service to Andes, though Middletown is now one step closer to getting permanent cell service.  Last Thursday night, the Middletown Planning Board approved an application by SBA Communications to erect one of its cell towers on property along county Route 38 in Arkville owned by Margaretville businessman Peter Molnar. The property is being leased by MTC. SBA is also seeking to install its towers on properties in Grand Gorge and on Palmer Hill in Andes, which are being leased by MTC.

While it’s been difficult to attract cell phone carriers to this sparsely populated region, it took a disaster for Verizon to come forward to provide temporary cell phone service to Margaretville. Following last Augusts’ devastating flood, Verizon set up a portable cell tower. “As noted in past experiences, there usually takes a tragedy or large political pressure to move these projects forward,” said Faulkner. “The temporary service in Margaretville, and the commitment from Verizon to move forward in my opinion is a direct result of Governor Cuomo’s visit during the Hurricane Irene disaster.”

The family of Arthur and Madeleine Morris have begun their own effort to seek expedited cell coverage Andes, in hopes of preventing a similar tragedy from occurring. Jeantet Fields and his father, Ronald, say they want something good to come from their loss.

“It’s hard to believe that in the 21st century, we can’t get cell service about 100 miles outside of New York City,” said Jeantet.