France probes deaths linked to emergency line outage

by Katia DOLMADJIAN / Tiphaine LE LIBOUX

A seven-hour breakdown of emergency phone line numbers in France was linked Thursday to up to three deaths, including that of a 63-year-old man who was unable to hail an ambulance after suffering a heart attack.

Many distressed people found themselves unable to reach emergency medical, police or fire numbers, or had their calls cut off mid-conversation, from around 5 pm (1500 GMT) to midnight on Wednesday.

“It’s too early to give you a toll, but obviously we are very concerned,” President Emmanuel Macron told a voter in southwest France when asked if anyone had lost their life as a result of the turmoil.

Telecom operator Orange has acknowledged responsibility for the problems, with chief executive Stephane Richard offering his “deepest apologies” after being summoned to the interior ministry to explain the breakdown.

An investigation has been opened in the western Morbihan region after a man who had suffered a heart attack died in hospital in the town of Vannes after being driven there by his spouse.

The patient and his family tried several times to call an ambulance on the usual number, local officials and the prosecutor’s office said, though the hospital said it was too early to blame the delays as the cause of death.

“The evidence does not enable us to reach any firm conclusions,” head of the Bretagne Atlantique hospital, Philippe Couturier, told reporters.

Another two deaths of people with heart conditions on the island of La Reunion are also being investigated, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.

Health Minister Olivier Veran said there could be up to four deaths in total.

The interruption came with France in the latter stages of its third wave of Covid-19 infections, with around 10,000 new cases and 134 deaths reported in the last 24 hours.