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

News Desk: 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.

“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.”