New Zealand PM blasts 'heartless' action of utility that cut power to woman who needed electricity to breathe

Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark criticized the "heartless" actions of a utility company that cut the power to a woman who needed an electric oxygen pump to breathe, causing her death.

Meanwhile, the company's top executives visited the woman's family Friday, offering them traditional Samoan woven mats and a donation toward her funeral in gestures of apology.

State-owned utility company Mercury Energy is insisting it was not aware that 44-year-old Folole Muliaga depended on the oxygen machine to survive when it cut her power over a 168.40 New Zealand dollar (US$123; EUR92) unpaid bill.

Muliaga's family have claimed that both she and her son told the technician Tuesday that she needed the oxygen machine to stay alive, and invited him into the house to see it. A relative, Brenden Sheehan, told The Associated Press the technician cut the power anyway.

The schoolteacher and mother of four died two hours later.

Mercury Energy and its parent company, Mighty River Power, say they were never told Muliaga depended on the power supply for her oxygen machine. The technician also should not have been expected "to make medical decisions" on the woman's condition, Mighty River chief executive Doug Heffernan said.

Clark told National Radio she found it "simply unbelievable" the technician did not notice that Muliaga had an oxygen tube in her nose when he visited the home.

"This was clearly a very sick woman," she said. "She had an oxygen machine in the house, she had clearly been connected to it, the tube was in her nose."

"This is intolerable. We all feel ... devastated that this incident of heartlessness by a company and a contractor has gone around the world conveying an image of New Zealand that we don't like of ourselves," she added.

Police and the local coroner have each launched an investigation into the woman's death.

Heffernan, Mighty Power chairwoman Carole Durbin and general manager James Moulder visited Muliaga's home in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, on Friday to offer condolences to the family, which has Samoan background.

The family appreciated the gesture but still hold Mercury Energy responsible for the woman's death, Sheehan said afterward.

Chief medical officer Dr. Don Mackie told Radio New Zealand that Muliaga would not have been sent home from the hospital if she had needed the machine to stay alive.

"People who are on this are capable of breathing for themselves," Mackie said. "That is why we are surprised that she deteriorated and tragically died so soon after the support was withdrawn, and we need to understand more about that."

Muliaga had been off work since February with an illness and had fallen behind in her payments to Mercury, Sheehan said.