Many people think their cell phones will work just about anywhere. That misplaced faith can sometimes have tragic consequences, as in the case of Arthur and Madeleine Morris, an elderly New York City couple whose vehicle fell down an embankment near the end of vacation home driveway in New York’s Catskills region.
When it became clear their Ford Focus was stuck, the couple made five attempts to call for help. But calls to 911, Mrs. Morris' son and a neighbor all failed to connect, thanks to the spotty cellular service in the mountainous region. Investigators say that, finally giving up on the phone, Arthur Morris, 88, tried to climb out of the vehicle but became wedged between the door and the ground. He soon asphyxiated.
Mrs. Morris, 89, managed to climb out of the car but still could not get her phone to work. She was able to walk to the home of their nearest neighbors, only to find them not at home. She covered herself with a tarp but died of hypothermia when nighttime temperatures dipped into the 40s, local newspapers reported.
A CNET News article said the couple's 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.”
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.”
AT&T's striving aside, it's a fact of life that cell phones do not work well in any mountainous area, sparsely populated or not. They are, after all, little high-frequency radios that rely on line-of-sight transmission. If the phone can't "see" a tower, it's not going to get a signal. Mountainous areas of Los Angeles, like Pacific Palisades, despite being densely-populated to this day have spotty cell phone service, something residents have learned to live with.
Perhaps the best advice for anyone who routinely travels in sparsely-populated rural areas is to carry survival supplies -- including food, water and blankets -- in the trunk. They might also follow the practice of hikers and mountain climbers: always tell someone when you are leaving, your route and when you expect to reach your destination. That way, if you don't arrive on time, rescue teams can come looking for you.