'Totally Preventable': How a Sick Woman Lost Electricity, and Her Life

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‘Totally Preventable’: How a Sick Woman Lost Electricity, and Her Life

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Linda Daniels died on July 5 after a utility company turned off her electricity and her oxygen machine stopped operating. Family and friends carried her coffin from First Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Newark on Wednesday.CreditBryan Anselm for The New York Times

NEWARK — Linda Daniels had fallen behind on her electricity bills, her meter run up by medical equipment going around the clock and increasingly hot weather. But on July 3, her family said, they pulled together $500 to pay down her debts, believing it would maintain her service.

Two days later, her electricity was shut off. It was a sweltering day and temperatures in Newark soared into the 90s. Ms. Daniels’s house was stifling, the air so stuffy that her daughter said it was difficult to breathe. Even more serious: Ms. Daniels relied on an oxygen machine, and it required electricity.

Ms. Daniels, 68, had various ailments, including congestive heart failure, her relatives said, and in recent months she had been placed in hospice care as her health declined. Her doctors had not given her any indication of how long she had to live, relatives said, but her family wanted her to be comfortable and to be at home.

Over several hours that day, her family said, Ms. Daniels gasped for air. Her relatives said they repeatedly called the power company, Public Service Electric and Gas, pleading for the electricity to be restored, only to be asked at one point to stop calling. Paramedics brought portable oxygen tanks but, by later that afternoon, Ms. Daniels was dead from heart failure. Toward the end, her relatives said, she was frightened, clutching her children’s hands.

“It’s just very horrifying to my entire family,” her daughter, Desiree Washington, said. “I’m at my breaking point.”

As the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities has started an investigation, Ms. Daniels’s family and the utility company have offered conflicting versions of the events leading to her death. The company has argued that Ms. Daniels’s customer account was severely delinquent and that the company had no evidence of her medical condition or need for an oxygen machine. Her family disputes those statements.

The case has also alarmed officials and advocates who questioned how Ms. Daniels could fall through the safety net in New Jersey, a state that has some of the country’s strongest protections to keep low-income families from having their utilities turned off and to stop companies from shutting off service to customers with medical emergencies.

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A memorial card for Ms. Daniels, 68.CreditBryan Anselm for The New York Times

“I’m looking at this as totally preventable,” said Mark Wolfe, the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. “That’s what’s really troubling. The family was trying, and no one put two and two together and said she can be helped. This is really unnecessary. That was the missing part of it: There is help there.”

Officials at Public Service Electric and Gas Company said in a statement that Ms. Daniels’s customer account was “severely in arrears.” Officials said her account, as of last week, had been past due about $1,500. The company said that it had made at least 26 attempts to notify Ms. Daniels that she risked losing power since the beginning of the year, including two visits to her house. It also said that a review of its records going back to 2012 found no indication that anyone at the address required life-sustaining medical equipment.

“When we were contacted after service had been disconnected and were notified that the customer had medical issues,” the company said in the statement, “we began the process to restore service.”

The company said it was cooperating with the official investigation. And on Friday it announced it had hired Theodore V. Wells Jr. of the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, who is well known for helping companies investigate accusations of misconduct, to run an independent inquiry of its own actions. The company has repeatedly declined to elaborate beyond its statements.

Ms. Daniels’s family provided The New York Times with screen shots from a cellphone that appear to show bank records with a series of payments made to the company, including the one for $500 on July 3, as well as $300 in April, $250 in May and $400 in June.

The family also disputed the claim that the company was unaware of Ms. Daniels’s medical situation; they said that, several years ago, the company was informed that she needed a breathing machine to treat her sleep apnea. Ms. Washington said that an employee from the company had visited the house in June to discuss her outstanding balance and was told of Ms. Daniels’s medical needs.

In the panicked calls the family made on July 5, Ms. Washington said, the company’s representatives were “being money crazed” and, in her view, showed no empathy or willingness to help. The power was restored by the next day, she said. She added that a company executive called her brother after her mother had died and offered the company’s condolences.

“Stop putting it back on us,” Ms. Washington said of the company. “You messed up. Just own it. The truth is going to come out. Just admit that you made a mistake.”

In New Jersey, according to the state Board of Public Utility rules, residential service cannot be shut off on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays; holidays or the day before; or if there is a medical emergency in the household. There are also limitations on shutting off service to homes if temperatures are predicted to reach 95 degree or higher during the 48 hours afterward. (The temperature was not forecast to meet that threshold when Ms. Daniels’s power was cut off.) And consumer advocates said utility companies will often come up with payment plans for customers trying to chip away at their unpaid bills rather than cutting them off.

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Ms. Daniels’s house in Newark.CreditBryan Anselm for The New York Times

Last year, more than 260,000 households received energy assistance in New Jersey, and 70 percent of the recipients were homes with older or disabled residents or families with young children, according to Mr. Wolfe. This year, the state received $127 million in federal funds for a low-income energy assistance program.

State officials said that Ms. Daniels had never benefited from those programs. Her daughter said she had applied but had been denied. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs said that the agency’s records showed that Ms. Daniels had applied for low-income energy assistance in 2007, but that her paperwork was incomplete and she did not follow up.

Ms. Daniels had been in hospice care since April, as her condition worsened.

She had lived for decades in the narrow red brick and white clapboard house on the corner of a street lined with shady yards and older homes. It was where she raised a large family, with two biological children and the many others who she took in. “She is not my first mom that I’ve lost,” said Quiyetta Brooks, who was about 4 years old when her mother, Ms. Daniels’s sister, died. “She was my second. She was my everything.”

Ms. Daniels, whose parents were both pastors, was born and raised in Newark, the fourth of eight children. She had to retire from working as a data entry clerk for the Newark Board of Education earlier than expected after she lost her vision in her 50s. “Her eyes were completely worn out,” Ms. Washington said.

She seemed aimless at first, her daughter said, but her children told her: “You have so much more in you.”

She wrote children’s books, with her daughters sitting at a computer typing her words. (In one about a girl’s imaginary friend, she wrote: “My little girl has a friend, and she says that his name is Glen. When it is time for beddie-bye he comes to her with a grin.”) And when she wanted to record gospel music, Ms. Washington drove her to a niece’s house in Virginia, where she had a studio. Her friends liked the recording, so her daughter drove her back again, this time to make a Christmas album.

“My mom got up one day and said, ‘Des, let’s do it,’” Ms. Washington recalled. Her mother told her, “I don’t care if my books don’t make one penny, as long as I leave a legacy for these children, as long as I leave a legacy for my family.”

On a recent morning, Ms. Daniels’s family and friends filled a church’s pews as they assembled for her funeral service. Some sobbed and embraced each other as they saw her in her coffin. Yet the gathering was a homegoing, and pastors urged the congregation to see the moment as a celebration. “No more tears!” one of the preachers, Nancy Salter, commanded in her sermon. “I won’t complain!” another woman, a friend, sang in a soaring voice. “In the middle of my pain, thank you, Lord!”

Then, Ms. Washington approached the altar with dark glasses shielding her eyes.

“I’ve learned to how suffer, for if you suffer you’ll gain eternal, eternal life,” she sang, her voice streaked with pain. “All my troubles, my tribulations, heartaches will be over. For when I see Jesus, when I see Jesus, amen.”

Patrick McGeehan and Aaron Robertson contributed reporting from New York, and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

Follow Rick Rojas on Twitter: @rar

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