Jeff Gelles: Phone outage complicates a tragic situation

Viola Mason, outside her Southwest Philadelphia home, had to leave her ailing husband's side to buy a cellphone. Richard Mason died Monday.
Viola Mason, outside her Southwest Philadelphia home, had to leave her ailing husband's side to buy a cellphone. Richard Mason died Monday. (JEFF GELLES / Staff)
Posted: January 08, 2012

Viola Mason knew she faced a hard path over the holidays as her husband, Richard, lay dying from the end stage of a painful, inoperable cancer. She never imagined how much harder it would prove because of what usually might seem a small quirk of fate: a phone outage.

But this wasn't just any outage. The Masons and dozens of their neighbors lost phone service Dec. 22, three days before Christmas. Despite assurances that their phones would be back "within 24 hours," Viola Mason says, they still weren't working 11 days later, when Richard Mason died Monday at 72.

When I reached Viola Mason on Thursday, she said her service was back for the first time in two weeks - two weeks when she'd been unable to reach her husband's doctors, had trouble getting medicine and obtaining hospice care, and had to leave her husband alone to make pay calls at the grocery or, for the first time in her life, buy a cellphone.

So for now, Viola Mason's grief for her husband is mixed with anger and frustration at Verizon, a phone company she says failed her in the worst possible circumstances, and treated her rudely along the way. She calls the whole experience "a travesty."

In particular, Mason voices suspicion that Verizon was slow to respond because she lives in a low-income section of Southwest Philadelphia and because its attention is focused on newer technologies such as cellphones and the citywide fiber-optic network it's building to compete with Comcast.

Fueling her anger was a report that Verizon's net income had recently doubled thanks to profits from its wireless business. "It seemed to me that they could use some of their profits to fix their landlines," Mason says.

What does Verizon say? Above all, that this was an unusually tough outage it fixed as quickly as possible, and that it is sorry for adding to Viola Mason's troubles.

"Our deepest sympathies go out to Mrs. Mason on the loss of her husband," said spokesman Lee Gierczynski. "We understand how problems like this could create some stress at a very difficult time."

There are two sides to this story, of course. But in an age of nearly ubiquitous cellphones, it's hard to remember that not everyone has an emergency backup. So let's start with Viola Mason's perspective.

Awful timing

Mason was born on the same block where she lives now: the 6800 block of Upland Street, in the Mount Moriah section of Southwest Philadelphia.

A refugee from two disastrous marriages, she was happy to find a "handyman's special" there in the early 1990s, and even happier to discover Richard Mason, who lived around the corner. A chemist with a doctorate from Penn State, Mason had his own woes, including two recent layoffs.

Viola Mason says they had 16 good years, followed by her husband's rapid decline this fall after cancer was discovered in his eye. At the end, his only wish was to die at home with his wife nearby, as free from pain as possible. But Mason says the phone outage turned her husband's final weeks into more of a nightmare than they had to be.

One problem was his painkiller. Nearing the end, he needed something stronger and in liquid form. But without a phone, Mason was unable to connect with a backup doctor while her husband's was away for the holidays.

A helpful pharmacist suggested crushing his pill into apple sauce. He choked when she tried, then couldn't seem to swallow at all.

Mason says a hospice nurse tried to intervene, calling Verizon from her own cellphone and putting Viola Mason on speaker. Couldn't the company lend the couple a cellphone?

The Verizon representative said that no such help was available, and that the Masons couldn't expect "special treatment," Viola Mason recalls. Mason, 68, says it was one of the few times in her life she used a swear word in response.

With New Year's approaching and service still out, she finally left her husband one more time, to buy a cellphone at Sears.

Verizon's perspective

Gierczynski says Verizon first got calls about the outage Dec. 23. "We had reports from about 20 customers, so it was fairly small at that point," he told me.

He says the company started troubleshooting Dec. 24, but couldn't isolate the problem till early the following week. What it discovered was water damage and corrosion affecting a copper cable beneath Woodland Avenue.

Several factors complicated the repair. One was the 20-foot depth of the cable, which lay beneath water pipes and other fixtures. Another was SEPTA trolley traffic on the street above.

Ultimately, he says, Verizon engineers decided to lay 3,100 feet of new copper cable to bypass the damaged section, and then reconnect the 144 lines affected.

"They worked throughout the New Year's holiday weekend to restore the service," Gierczynski says. He says one supervisor called the repair "one of the most unusual and challenging jobs he's been involved with in 25 years."

Gierczynski says Mason is wrong to suspect that the delay had anything to do with her neighborhood's demographics, or with the company's focus on newer technologies. Despite a shrinking pool of customers, he says, Verizon spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to maintain and improve its landline network.

"This wasn't an area with chronic problems," he says.

Mason begs to differ, as do other neighbors. She says briefer outages have been a common annoyance on her street. Neighbor Lenor Trotman says she switched her family's service to Comcast in September because of frequent interruptions.

State utility rules don't provide any obvious help. Except for routine outages, they require utilities only to "take reasonable measures to prevent interruptions of service and to restore service with a minimum delay." But Public Utility Commission spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher urges unhappy customers to complain by calling 1-800-692-7380.

"We can't investigate things that we don't know about," she says.

What about lending cellphones to affected customers? Kocher says state officials are limited "to what is provided under the code."

Gierczynski acknowledged that it was possible. "It's not something that's routine. It's just done on a case-by-case base." But he stressed that the Masons' account was properly flagged as a "medical emergency" because of Richard Mason's illness. "Prioritizing people with medical problems is policy. She did receive priority when the technicians were able to restore services."

By that point, Richard Mason had been dead two days. Wouldn't a loaner cellphone have been a more useful call?


Contact columnist Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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