He had a place deep in the hearts of many members of the Petaluma community as they followed his ups and downs in personal blogs and newspaper articles during an attempted recovery from a diving accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

And with time, many of them began to feel that his struggle with their struggle.

So, when Danny Cox, 19, died in a vehicle accident on Highway 101 near Novato on Sunday, the community was shaken. But his family members and friends who gathered the day after the accident clearly feel that his spirit lives on.

"We used to call him our &‘angel boy' because he always had a childlike purity in his heart," said Emily Cox, one of his sisters. "He's still our angel boy, and always will be."

"The Petaluma community gave him so much support. I know that our angel boy will be watching over it in the future," said Maureen McGowan, his mother.

Cox already has helped to strengthen the community by bringing together people from all walks of life to rally for a good cause —?his recovery. This is part of his legacy, and consistent with his character. The stories told by his loved ones at Graffiti restaurant, owned by McGowan and her husband, Mark, showed that underlying Cox's playfulness, air of supreme confidence and chiseled body was a young man who cared deeply about others.

"Danny was the &‘real deal.' He had a kind of cockiness, but underneath it, he was very kind," said Landra Buchanan, a family friend.

Those gathered told stories about Cox helping out at Graffiti to make sure that customers were happy.

"He was in tune to other people and what they needed. He wasn't self-absorbed at all," Buchanan said.

Emily, 25, said that Cox, who was a track star at Petaluma High School, was an inspiration to many people.

"At Petaluma Junior High School, a P.E. teacher gave him an &‘A,' in his class, and asked Danny if he knew why. Danny said, &‘Of course, it's because I'm athletic.' The teacher said, &‘No, it's because you make everyone else want to do better.'"

"He was so proud of his athletic ability," said Chris Cox, his father. "He loved being able to run faster than me. In fact, he could do everything better than me and used to (playfully) rub that in my face."

"Danny would like to be remembered as a stud," Emily said, smiling.

Cox was inspired to become a firefighter by Matt Menard, who serves the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.

"Danny was upfront, personable and a true man. He would have been an outstanding firefighter. If I were a chief, he would be my first choice to hire," Menard said.

Cox was very close to his 9-year-old brother, Charlie.

"They would wrestle or skateboard together before the accident, and after it they played video games and watched Giants baseball games," McGowan said.

Cox was paralyzed after diving into shallow water at Lake Tahoe on Aug. 10, 2010. During his recovery, Cox he surpassed even the loftiest hopes of many doctors, largely due to two stem-cell treatments he received in Panama City. After a visit this summer, he regained some feeling in a pinkie and a tricep.

He passed a driver's test on July 26, and was able to again drive his prized 2005 Dodge Magnum, which had been retrofitted with a special device that he would slide his hand into so that he could maneuver the vehicle. Cox still was getting used to operating the retrofitted vehicle when he told his family that he was going for a drive late Sunday afternoon.

McGowan said that although Cox's mood fluctuated considerably during the past year, on Sunday he was feeling good about many things.

"On Saturday, we went to get new light fixtures and carpeting for his unit (next to the family house). And he was glad that he had more feeling back and that he was able to drive," she said.

At around 5:45 p.m. on Sunday, Cox died after his vehicle smashed into an oak tree on Highway 101, near Olompali State Park. The California Highway Patrol reported that he was traveling at a speed of 65 to 70 mph and that there were no skid marks indicating that he had tried to brake before the accident, but McGowan firmly believes that it was not intentional.

"A therapist once asked him if he ever thought about hurting himself. He said that he never, never wanted to hurt himself. He never would have wanted to damage his Magnum, either," McGowan said. "Also, he was driving in traffic, and he never would have wanted to take a risk of hurting someone."

She feels that Cox might have lost control of the vehicle, and that he was unable to avoid the accident because he was traveling at a high speed, had just begun to use the new driving equipment and was physically limited.

The California Highway Patrol and Marin County Coroner's Office are investigating the accident.

A memorial service in honor of Cox will be held at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 14 at Durst Field on the Petaluma High School campus, at 201 Fair St. The service will be open to the public, as Cox had requested. His family members ask that those attending wear black and yellow, his favorite colors.

After the service, a reception will be held at the the Mystic Theater, at 23 Petaluma Blvd. North, starting at 3 p.m.

A large turnout for the service and reception is likely, given how deeply Cox touched the community, in general, and his family, in particular.

"In all of his stays in hospitals, he was never alone," his father said.

"I'm so grateful that he didn't die on the beach after the accident. We got to spend another year with him, and it created a new dynamic in our family," Emily said.

(Contact Dan Johnson at dan.johnson@arguscourier.com)