Was this Chinese stewardess killed by her Apple iPhone 5? No – if anything, it was faulty charger

“In a country already obsessed — for good or ill — with Apple products, the news of Ma Ailun’s death spread rapidly,” Philip Elmer-DeWitt writes for Fortune. “Four days later, the details of [Southern Airlines flight attendant] Ma Ailun’s death at age 23 are still murky. Police in Xinjiang, the province in northwestern China where the incident took place, confirmed to local reporters that she was electrocuted, although they could not identify the source of the current that killed her.”

“Ms. Ma’s iPhone 5, according to her family, was purchased in December and was still under warranty. The family told @Stewardess network that she had left a bath to answer a call,” P.E.D. writes. “According to Ma Ailun’s family, she was using genuine Apple parts. The device and its charger were reportedly handed over to the police.”

P.E.D. writes, “Apple PR, having learned the hard way that its usual code of silence doesn’t fly in China, broke tradition and issued a response to the South China Morning Post: ‘We are deeply saddened to learn of this tragic incident and offer our condolences to the … family. We will fully investigate and co-operate with authorities in this matter.'”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: “She had left a bath to answer a call?” We’d start the investigation right there.

Related articles:
Apple to probe electric shock death of Chinese woman who used iPhone 5 while it was charging – July 15, 2013

48 Comments

      1. Let’s not forget a young girl died here. I don’t think this is funny no matter how it happened. This is a real tragedy, and Chinese parents love their children just as much as we love ours.

    1. The fact is, this is just more Apple bashing. People die in bathrooms. If she had grabbed a blow dryer while naked with wet feet and died, nobody would be accusing General Electric, or whoever, of killing a 23-year-old stewardess.

  1. Hopefully an electrical engineer will chime in here about whether it’s possible to get enough current through an iPhone transformer to stop a heart. I’m guessing there was something else going on, like maybe she grabbed an extension cord or touched a poorly installed wall plate.

    1. The issue is really about having wet skin which greatly reduces your skins resistance and could easily cause a lethal shock with as little as 120 milliamps (or even far less). With dry skin you wouldn’t even feel this current.

      It would be extremely unlikely the death was caused by the iPhone or charger and was probably due to faulty wiring in the home. Also more moder homes have GFCI outlets in bath, kitchens where water is present that prevent this sort of thing.

      So theoretically possible but highly unlikely set of circumstances would need to happen which makes this an extremely rare and unlikely event.

      1. You are thinking US Building Codes. China runs on 220v 50Hz and isn’t so regulatorily inhibited as the US.

        I can’t see how anything the the chain of Apple products would result in a voltage present on the outside of the iPhone under proper use. Perhaps moisture from her hand got into the connector (how?), but even then it should only have been 5v and even with wet skin, the skin shouldn’t be the path of least resistance.

        I keep visualizing the Radioman on the Orlando in Down Periscope. I am so sad in so many ways.

    2. If a fault (for whatever reason) occurred inside the charger, line voltage could be available on the low-voltage charging cable. Yes, that could be lethal. Millions of these charging devices are manufactured by Apple and others so an occasional mishap would not be out of the question. It happens. Nothing is perfect. Someone is dead and that’s a tragedy. That should be everyone’s first response and not desperately trying to find a reason that a company is not at fault. But it’s China so who knows if we will ever know the real story? Sounds like it could be user error. Certainly happens enough in the United States. Every day. People are not careful enough around electricity. Electricity doesn’t always give you a second chance when you make a mistake. And it doesn’t take high-voltage to kill you either.

      1. All true. That’s why the one home repair I don’t mess with is electrical. I’ll install a dimmer but that’s about it. Not worth it. Okay, and natural gas lines. I won’t touch those either.

        1. Yeah, you really can’t be too careful with electricity. It never sleeps. It’s always ready to bite you. Hard. It’s unforgiving. Not something that the inexperienced or casually experienced should tamper with. Surprising how many people are electrocuted because they failed to turn off the circuit. But even that doesn’t always guarantee safety. And therein lies the problem : a little knowledge. Homeowners and inexperienced people in the commercial field fail to realize that turning off the circuit isn’t always enough. Line voltage can still be available through multiwire circuits. One or more circuits that share the same return path through the grounded (neutral) conductor. Commercially you have single phase and three-phase power. Meaning you can have one, two or three hot (ungrounded) conductors with only one grounded (neutral) conductor per multiwire circuit. In the home you only have single phase but you can still have a multiwire circuit. Two hot (ungrounded) conductors and one grounded (neutral) conductor in a multiwire circuit. Turning off one breaker or removing one fuse doesn’t take care of the other one or two energized conductors using the same neutral. It’s as though you were only working on one circuit and it is energized. Or on a three-phase multiwire circuit you have two circuits are still using that neutral. Bam! So much for the inexperienced. Remember, that neutral (grounded conductor) will kill you just the same as the hot (ungrounded) conductor. It’s the return path for current. A sad lesson learned the hard way by many every year. And the neutral (grounded) conductor on a 277 V lighting circuit is especially dangerous. It’s a nasty voltage that kills a number of workers every year who are careless. So be very careful if you have to work on electricity. Turn off the circuit and lock it out safely. Use good insulated tools. Remember that white or gray wire can be lethal just like the ones going to the breakers! And if you absolutely don’t know precisely what you’re doing, don’t do it. Call someone who does. And not some handyman either. A licensed electrical contractor. In the long run it’s safer and cheaper.

    1. Common sense. The FIRST thing I did when I bought my house was to replace all the electrical outlets in my two bathrooms with ones that have built-in circuit breakers that shutoff at the first sign of a short. One of those most likely would have saved her life.

  2. This is a horrific incident to be sure and I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy, but I wonder if the call was ‘answered’ before the tragic event? If so, did the conversation start off like this…

    Hellooo-ohohoh-ooo-ohohoh-oo-ohohoh-ooo-oh-oh…

  3. Let’s be honest, cheap chargers and their cables are often made to look exactly like Apple products and are often sold to unsuspecting customers as genuine Apple parts.

    Very sad story.

  4. Water and electricity don’t mix. That was the reason why she got electrocuted. No phone call is that important that you should handle any electronics that are plugged into the wall when you are wet. It is not the fault of the phone or the charger. I’m afraid the only one to blame is the Chinese woman that handled electronics plugged into the wall while being wet from a bath. Anyone with common sense should know this.

  5. I just ordered some cheap shit chargers from Extreme Deals. I am thinking that I will just toss them in the garbage now.

    I think that low level tingling in my nuttleys would not just be from getting a good cheap deal on these parts (the charging units I mean).

  6. Ok last week here on a consumer programme they told the story of a charging iPhone that exploded knocking out the owner and burning him along hand and arm as it threw him across the room. The cause? The charger sold as an authentic Apple charger was a cheap Chinese fake that was was lethally wired. Can’t remember if it was bought on EBAY or from a cheap store. But apparently thousands were found available for sale with little way to tell if they were not authentic from the outside. May be coincidence but the question has to be asked I think.

    1. I don’t believe it. Not for a second.

      It’s like the stories of the “exploding” Powerbook 5300s. Several stories floated around of them exploding or catching fire and flames shooting out of them. What really happened? Two (yes two) started smoking in an Apple lab. (Even the current iteration of the Wikipedia page gets this nuance wrong.) Apple corrected the issue.

      When all the “reports” came out of the exploding/flaming 5300s Apple did a thorough investigation. The answer? None of them were true. The most that happened out in the wild was that the batteries got hot enough to deform and become unusable.

      Was there a design flaw in the 5300? Absolutely. Did the 5300 generate excessive heat? Absolutely. Did any explode or catch fire? Absolutely not.

      An exploding iPhone that knocked out the guy, burned his hand and arm and threw him across the room? I don’t believe it for a second.

  7. There is no way to run 120 milliamps through the vital organs of a human body from a 5 volt source. The resistance through her body would have to have been reduced to 41 ohms or so. Normal skin resistance, even wet, is in the neighborhood of hundreds of thousands of ohms. She had to have come into contact with the primary 220 volts from the wall. It could have been something as simple as an ungrounded outlet box where a hot wire was in contact with the metal box and/or cover plate screws. 220 volts on the iPhone connection would have smoked and melted the iPhone, and blown up the battery. It would not have been functioning enough to ring. Faulty house wiring is undoubtedly the cause, but we will probably never know conclusively.

    1. A faulty charging unit could absolutely allow line voltage to exist on the charging cable. The line voltage could have been for a short or long period of time. It only takes a split second to be electrocuted. And the human body may not withstand 220 V AC at even a very small current level. And every human body reacts differently. And obviously if wet it’s a no-brainer. Of course it would kill someone. It’s 220 V AC not 120 V AC so there’s that much more power available. And 120 mA is nonexistent if there is a fault. You simply have 220 V available on the other end of the charging cable. Matters not how it gets there only that it gets there. If 220 V is available on the other end of the charging cable that’s deadly. And the phone functioning or not functioning means nothing. Nothing at all.

      1. If there was 220 VAC present at the charging end of the iPhone connection the phone would not be functioning, hence not ringing, hence no reason to leave the tub to answer it.

        The 120mA I was referring to is the recognized approximate amount of current that must flow through vital organs like the heart in order for a shock to be fatal. That CANNOT happen with 5 volts. 220 VAC had to have been present somewhere, and given the above, and the dismal state of Chinese construction standards, it’s much more likely that faulty house wiring produced an energized piece of hardware either at the wall or on some ungrounded portion of the phone/cable/charger assembly. It would be hard to devise a scenario where there is 220 VAC on some part of the phone and still have it remain intact and functional.

        1. Apparently the true circumstances/scenario of what actually occurred in this incident are not known. Thus “no reason to leave the tub to answer it” is not a factual observation. We don’t know what really happened. The phone could have been functioning perfectly until a fault or problem occurred allowing the line voltage to reach the charging cable. Possibly a faulty charger or user error? We don’t really know.

          120 mA is simply a figure thrown out as a generality. Different people would require different amounts of current for it to be lethal. Of course 5 V would not kill anyone. That’s obvious. And it’s not any part of this investigation. Yes, clearly it would take a lethal line voltage (apparently 220 V AC 50 hz in China) to have killed this individual. But certainly less than half of that voltage is lethal. And again, it is unknown at this point if line voltage reached the end of the charging cable. But the phone functioning or not functioning doesn’t matter. What does matter is that line voltage apparently killed this girl.

          No country in the world comes close to the safe wiring practices of the United States. China is clearly way down the list. But people die here every day from electrocution also. Sometimes it is faulty wiring. Sometimes it is faulty equipment. And sometimes it is user error. The same possibilities apply in China also. A good qualified investigator would make short work of this. There are good qualified investigators in China. It’s not rocket science. But will it be investigated properly? Who knows? But to say that it could not be the charger or that the phone has to be functioning is not correct. Electrical problems are not always as simple as they seems at first.

          I have no dog in the fight. I have no reason to accuse Apple or defend Apple in this situation. Why would I? Why would anyone? Likewise I have no reason to put the blame on Chinese construction or the young lady in this situation. It simply requires thorough unbiased analysis. Nothing more. Nothing less.

  8. How can they claim that she was electrocuted if they have identified no source for this? Unless the woman actually displayed physical burn marks this would be difficult to prove. If she did, it should not be that hard to say what caused these.
    What happens is that the heart goes into a very inefficient fibrillation to subsequently stop when starved of oxygen. This should leave no visible marks on the heart.
    Besides, in three days they should have been able to confirm whether her mobile was faulty or not.

  9. Since we have almost a total lack of information, all we are left with are theories. As an EE, I’ll add mine to the mix.

    One of the products I (we) produce uses a s Chinese made switching power supply. Bigger than the iPhone charger but in principle is the same. What we found in this power supply was a small value capacitor (100 picofarafs I think) connected from one of the hot AC inputs to the ground side of the low voltage output. Blew my mind. Have no idea why this was done (EMI suppression possibly). We removed this capacitor from every unit we received. Because, if it were to short, it would place 120VAC right to the ground circuit of the device being powered. Typically, this is also the case of the powered device.

    Hopefully we’ll get more info from Apple and/or the Chinese.

  10. 5 volts of electricity, which is the output of either a legitimate charger or the iPhone, is NOT going to kill any human.

    …unless of course she chopped herself open and applied it directly to her heart.

    Scam.
    China.

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