Elderly husband and wife Arthur and Madeleine Morris die in crash near their Catskills home because they couldn't get cell phone signalby Tracy Connor, nydailynews.com
May 11th 2012 3:00 AM
Arthur and Madeleine Morris, shown at their Catskills vacation home, were married nearly 50 years and were virtually inseparable.
Help should have been a phone call away.
An elderly Manhattan couple who got into a minor car accident at the end of their country house driveway were doomed to horrible deaths because they couldn’t get a cell phone signal.
Stuck in a ditch just 60 feet from their Catskills vacation home, Arthur and Madeleine Morris, devoted to each other for nearly 50 years, desperately dialed for help nine times.
Nine times, the call would not go through — so the panicked seniors tried to escape themselves, with disastrous results.
Arthur, 88, was smothered trying to crawl out of the Ford Fusion, while brave wife Madeleine, 89, trekked to a road but died of exposure after a rainy night under a tarp.
“What really has me choked up the most is the circumstances they died in,” grandson Jeantet Fields told the Daily News at the family’s upper West Side brownstone.
“Given the lives they lived, they should have had a better way out than that.”
A half-century after they met, the globe-trotting couple were still inseparable, enjoying retired life with trips to their vacation home in quaint Andes, N.Y.
Arthur, a Juilliard-educated music teacher, had heart disease and a hernia. His wife, a retired professor who survived the Nazi occupation in France, had two knee replacements but was mentally sharp.
Thunderstorms kept them inside their upstate refuge for much of May 3, but the sun had emerged by the time they ventured out around 4:30 p.m.
Arthur guided the sedan down the long driveway and was negotiating a hairpin turn at the end when he slid off the road and into a ditch.
The car rolled less than 15 feet down a steep embankment, hit a sapling and came to rest atilt on the driver’s side, state police said.
The slow-speed crash caused little damage to the car or its occupants, who tried five times in quick succession to call someone — with no luck.
At that point, the family believes, Arthur tried to get out. But because of the car’s steep angle, when he opened the door, he fell. His torso was wedged in an 8-inch space between the bottom of the door and the ground.
Madeleine may have frantically tried to pull him back in by his feet as his air supply was cut off. He was asphyxiated, probably within 10 minutes, the family said.
His wife picked up the phone again and dialed four more times, trying to reach a neighbor and 911. Again and again the calls did not go through.
Madeleine crawled out of the car, leaving the phone behind, and went for help on foot. She trudged through brush to a dirt road, then struggled uphill with her cane, and may have fallen and gashed her head.
“She walked a quarter-mile to the neighbor’s house and there was no one there,” Jeantet Fields said. “It was a vacation house and they had left the day before.”
She covered herself with a blue plastic tarp from the woodpile and settled down on the patio as temperatures dipped into the low 50s. By morning, she was dead.
“She could have smashed a window. There were logs there. But I don’t think that ever would have occurred to her,” said her son, Ronald Fields, 66.
“Had they stayed in the car, they probably would have survived,” Jeantet Fields said. “They were maybe [60 feet] from home.”
The avoidable tragedy was uncovered when some turkey hunters found the wreck about 10 a.m. the next day, said Investigator Alan Ferrara of the state police.
Troopers who responded found Arthur’s body and called another son, Robert Jeantet, with the terrible news. He said his mother wouldn’t be far away, and they found her within two hours.
“In 19 years, I haven’t seen anything like this,” said Ferrara. “It was just a fender-bender.”
Jeantet Fields said he had given his grandparents a cell phone on the AT&T network because he thought that would give them the best shot at a signal.
But police and local residents say cell service is virtually non-existent in Andes and other small mountain towns with no towers — an annoyance and a danger.
“The roads are windy and we get a lot of snow,” said Cheryl Terrace, owner of Hogan’s General Store in Andes.
“Something can go wrong and you would be really stuck. It’s frightening sometimes.”
Two years ago, then-Congressman Scott Murphy sent a public appeal to cell phone carriers to cover Delaware County, but it never happened.
Margaretville Telephone Company, which provides landline service in the area, has been trying to get the ball rolling.
General manager Glenn Faulkner said it’s difficult to lure big carriers like AT&T or Verizon to sparsely populated hamlets.
“There’s no main artery, no interstate coming through the central Catskills,” he said.
Nevertheless, his company has secured several sites where towers could be built and is working to get commitments from carriers.
One tower could go up in nearby Margaretville within a year; a site has been identified in Andes but it will probably take two years to get service there, he said.
In the meantime, anyone who veers off a road could find themselves in the same dire straits at the Morrises.
A week after their deaths, family gathered at the couple’s brownstone on W. 107th St., home to four generations.
They recalled Madeleine’s remarkable life, starting with how she had been honored as a Christian who helped Jews escape the Nazis in France when she was just 17.
“She did a lot of courageous things,” Ronald Fields said.
She moved to New Jersey with her first husband in 1946, but he died seven years later, leaving her with two small boys.
She went back to France, left her sons with her parents and returned to New York to get her Ph.D. at Columbia University. When she got a job teaching at Brown University, she retrieved the boys and settled in Providence, R.I.
That’s where she met Arthur, a gentle music teacher at her sons’ private school. They fell in love, married in 1963 and moved to Long Island.
She worked at Queens College; he taught in the public schools and played organ at church on the weekends.
Robert Jeantet noted that they didn’t find each other until they were in their late 30s.
“They never thought they’d see their 50th wedding anniversary. It was starting to seem possible,” he said.
The couple was planning a June 30 trip to Annery, France, where they spent every summer since 1981, an hour from where Madeleine was born.
Their ashes will be scattered there.
Their survivors seem shocked that something so simple as the lack of a cell phone signal could have spelled such doom.
“Her knees worked. The car worked. Everything worked like it was supposed to except the cell phone,” Ronald Fields said.
“I feel it wasn’t their time to go.”
With Christina Boyle
Shared from Read It Later