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Petaluma teen paralyzed in Lake Tahoe diving accident dies in Highway 101 crash


The family, sat stunned and grief-stricken, in front of their west Petaluma home Monday as well-wishers stopped by to offer condolences.

The Cox-McGowan family, already struggling to deal with 19-year-old Danny Cox's catastrophic spinal injury a year ago, was dealt another tragic blow Sunday evening when the young man died in a single-vehicle crash on Highway 101.

"He was so kind, so kind to people," said his mother, Maureen McGowan, tears flowing as others tried to console her. "He was so giving."

Cox died when the 2005 Dodge Magnum wagon he was driving struck a tree along the freeway about 5:45 p.m. Sunday.

He was heading south on the highway north of Novato when the vehicle left the road and hit an oak tree near Olompali State Park. He was alone in the car.

There were no skid marks to suggest he'd been trying to brake prior to the collision, said CHP Officer Chris Rardin. Witnesses told the CHP he'd been travelling between 60-70 mph when he hit the tree.

The impact destroyed the vehicle and scattered debris about 300 feet.

Cox had gone out for a drive, his mother said, something that he enjoyed doing since he'd passed his driver's test on July 26. The car, which he had for several months before his injury, had been retrofitted with a special device he slid his hand into so he could maneuver the car.

McGowan thought maybe her son lost control of the car, not being experienced at highway speeds with his physical limitations or the new driving equipment.

"Maybe he overcorrected or undercorrected," she said, leaning against a porch railing.

"He was a great driver," said his father, Chris Cox, sitting quietly nearby.

An investigation into the crash was continuing Monday by CHP and the Marin County Coroner's Office.

McGowan downplayed suggestions that her son purposely crashed.

"He was sad. He was sad since his accident," she said. "But there's no way he did it on purpose, not with other cars around.

"He did struggle with despair," she continued. "But it made him feel better to drive."

McGowan said her son would not have killed himself without saying goodbye, either in a note or text message.

He was showing signs of improvement with his motor skills since a family trip in July to Panama where he received stem cell injections, according to a family online blog.

He was struggling with his physical restrictions, his mother said, but was enjoying having his driver's license and his private granny unit behind the main family home.

"We just picked out carpet together," McGowan said.

A diving accident a year ago at Lake Tahoe changed the course of Danny's life, indeed the whole family's, in an instant.

On that day, Aug. 10, 2010, Cox made a shallow dive at a South Lake Tahoe beach. Family members said Cox was running toward the lake and in 2 to 3 feet of water, when he did a "flat dive," like a belly flop.

At that moment, he'd told them, a wave created by a boat's wake "pushed in on his head."

Cox's neck was broken and his spinal cord damaged. The track standout at Petaluma High School would never walk again.

Cox, who had graduated just weeks earlier, was planning to start classes at Santa Rosa Junior College in fire science.

"He was going to be a fireman. He wanted to help people," Maureen McGowan said Monday. "Then, he got hurt. He said, &‘Now I have to be someone other people help.'"

Instead of getting ready to start college, Cox was hospitalized and in rehab for several weeks before he was able to return home.

His family, friends, teammates and former classmates rallied behind him, as did the greater Petaluma community, which raised tens of thousands of dollars to help with mountainous medical costs.

In October, Cox expressed gratitude for the support. He also expressed frustration at the changes in his life, especially his inability to use his hands.

"I don't even care if I ever walk again. I just want to be able to use my hands," he told his mother.

The family went to Panama in July for Cox to receive stem cell injections to help repair the damage.

A family blog chronicled the trip, the sightseeing and his injections, noting that he'd shown some promising signs and some additional feeling in his lower body.

They returned to Petaluma on July 24 and he got his driver's license five days later.

"Danny (has) been driving everywhere since getting his license back. He drove to SCI Fit in Pleasanton both there and back. It's the longest drive he has taken yet, and he did not get fatigued at all," read a blog from July 29.

On Monday, just hours after being notified of the crash, Cox's divorced parents and his siblings — Emily, 25, and Sophie, 22, and brothers Charlie, 9, and Jack, 2 — gathered at McGowan's house.

His parents had to make a decision about a planned Sept. 9 golf tournament. Cancel the fund-raiser or turn it into a memorial event?

"The medical expenses are still outrageous," McGowan said. "I have a bill in there for $28,000."

The young man's mother tried to keep from crumbling under the weight of it all.

"Maybe it's a way people can come out and think of him," she said.

The tournament, at Rooster Run golf course in Petaluma, will go on and still has room for teams. Donations can be made at or mailed to any First Community Bank, payable to the Danny Cox Rehabilitation Fund.

A website that chronicled Cox's rehabilitation has more information: www.dannycox707.com.

Plans for a formal memorial service were pending.