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Was this Chinese stewardess killed by her Apple iPhone 5?

July 15, 2013: 7:00 AM ET

No. If anything, it was a faulty charger. But Apple has promised to investigate her death.

Ma Ailun. Photos: @Stewardess network

Ma Ailun. Photos: @Stewardess network

FORTUNE -- The news first appeared on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, posted Saturday under the official @Stewardess network account. It went (as translated by reader Anne Nimick):

"Ma Ailun, a Southern Airline stewardess, was going be married on Aug. 8 and would have turned 24 on Aug. 16. In the evening of Jul. 11, 2013, while her authentic, less than one-year-old iPhone 5 was being charged, she was struck suddenly by a powerful electrical current... Just like that, she left us forever, leaving her young groom behind. Let's all pay respect to her. We all should be careful when using Apple iPhones while they are being charged."

[UPDATE: Follow-up stories in Chinese media report that it was an iPhone 4, not 5, and that Ms. Ma was using a third-party charger, not an original Apple part.]

In a country already obsessed -- for good or ill -- with Apple (AAPL) products, the news of Ma Ailun's death spread rapidly. Within minutes, the @Stewardess network message had been reposted more than 3,000 times, along with warnings to never answer a cellphone while it's plugged into a wall charger.

Four days later, the details of 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, 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.

Over the years, there have been other reports of people being electrocuted while handling a charging cellphone. But these reports are extremely rare and they seem to always come out of India.

About.com's Urban Legends site labels "partly true/overblown" a pair of 2004 reports that a young Indian man died answering a call while his "instrument was still connected to the mains."

"Assuming the report was accurate," the writer states, "it's fair to conclude that either the phone or the charger was defective, given that 1) I could find no other reports of people being electrocuted while using a charging cell phone, 2) under normal circumstances the current flowing into a charging cell phone ought not to be strong enough to kill anyone, and 3) neither manufacturers nor consumer agencies warn customers against using mobile phones while they are being charged."

A 2011 report, also out of India, attributes the electrocution of a 25-year-old man to the cheap, Chinese-made smartphone knock-off that he answered while it was still charging.

According to Ma Ailun's family, she was using genuine Apple parts. [A fact contradicted by later reports.] The device and its charger were reportedly handed over to the police.

Experts interviewed for a Yahoo.cn report offered several alternative explanations for Ms. Ma's electrocution:

  • High temperatures --  Third-party chargers can get too hot, especially in summer, leading to instability.
  • Short circuit -- A frayed charging cable or exposed metal threads could, in theory, cause a shock strong enough to kill if it's wet and plugged into a mis-wired and ungrounded electrical outlet.
  • Susceptibility -- Some individuals are more susceptible to electrocution than others.
  • Transient voltage -- If there were high-voltage wires close to Ma's home, one expert said, they could cause a transient voltage spike -- although the odds are against it.

Apple PR, having learned the hard way that its usual code of silence doesn't fly in China, broke tradition and issued a statement:

"We are deeply saddened to learn of this tragic incident and offer our condolences to the Ma family. We will fully investigate and cooperate with authorities in this matter."

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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