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):
[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.”
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: