Boy's choking death on bus raises questions

Mourning mother criticizes supervision

Darnell Cobb, 5, attended Kane Elementary School. Darnell Cobb, 5, attended Kane Elementary School.
Email|Print| Text size + By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / February 1, 2008

Sonja Cobb held the metal paper fastener believed to have choked her son to death and angrily blamed the city of Marlborough yesterday for the loss of the 5-year-old boy.

"I talked to the mayor; she just left my house," Cobb said as she mourned her son Darnell Cobb. "She's telling me my son ran to the bus driver and the bus driver called the paramedics. . . . He ran. I can't handle that. You don't look at no kid crying and call the paramedics."

Cobb said there should have been someone on the bus who knew first aid, and she vowed to fight to have monitors placed on school buses. A spokeswoman for the bus company said the driver followed all company procedures in summoning medical help.

"I am very angry, because I feel like a monitor should have been on the bus," Cobb said.

In a separate interview last night, Mayor Nancy Stevens said that there have never been monitors on school buses and that there is no way to tell if a monitor could have saved the boy's life.

"Do we know that would have made a difference? I don't know," Stevens said. "All indications we have were that he received immediate attention. I think the response time was less than three minutes."

The bus, heading north on Maple Street, was taking children home after school about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.

A child sitting next to Darnell Cobb notified the bus driver that there was a problem, Stevens said earlier yesterday during a press conference at the Central Fire Station. The bus driver, the only adult on the bus with about 20 students, "immediately pulled over and radioed in a medical emergency," she said.

Paramedics responded quickly from the fire station on Maple Street, a few hundred yards away, Stevens said.

Stevens called it a "horrible accident" and praised the quick response.

Rescuers rushed the boy to Marlborough Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

There was no word yesterday from city or school officials on whether the bus driver had the time or training to perform the Heimlich maneuver, a manual procedure used to force an object from a choking victim's trachea. The driver was not identified.

Stevens said, "Obviously, the bus driver is very broken up."

The bus was operated by First Student Inc., a Cincinnati-based company that transports 4 million students across the country each day.

"The driver followed all the correct procedures that he was trained to do," said Nicole Maddock, a First Student spokeswoman. "He pulled over, he called for an ambulance service, and secured the bus for medical personnel. . . . Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of the student who died."

Sonja Cobb also blamed school officials. She said her son should not have had access to the fastener - a small, screw-shaped metal object with two bendable prongs - that is believed to have choked him. "He's only 5," Cobb said. "He should not be left unattended with these things."

Stevens said she could not comment on the fastener because the autopsy is not complete. Yesterday, before the exact cause of death was known, Marlborough parents were anxious for more information.

"I'm scared about it. It could happen to anyone, even my daughter," said Dante Gandolfo, who was waiting to pick up his 9-year-old daughter outside Francis J. Kane Elementary School, where Cobb was a kindergartner.

He said he hopes the school will add adult monitors to the buses as a precaution.

"I'm a little worried about it," said Korrianne Bardsley, the parent of a 5-year-old who is scheduled to attend Kane in the fall. She said the boy's death sounded like a "freak accident," but that she wants to know more about what happened.

Stevens sent a letter to all Kane parents yesterday, informing them of the death and alerting them that grief counselors are available for their children. "We encourage you to speak with your child as you deem appropriate and to call upon the school staff and crisis team for assistance," she wrote.

Parent Chris Kiepert, who has sons in the first and third grades at Kane and was waiting outside yesterday to pick them up, said he would probably not talk to them about the tragedy unless they asked, because he feels they are too young to discuss death. He said he was not at all worried about their safety or that something like this could happen again.

Cobb, speaking by phone, said she hoped her son's death would result in change. "I want mothers like myself to fight the city of Marlborough to have monitors on the bus," she said.

Her son, she said, has three siblings, two brothers ages 16 and 18, and a 2-year-old sister. His father is deceased, she said.

"I hoped for a future for my child," said Cobb, a full-time student at Clark University in Framingham, where she is from. "He was a beautiful kid, a very active kid, a very friendly child. He had his whole life ahead of him. Everyone loved this kid."

A funeral had not been planned yesterday, pending the autopsy, Cobb said.

Lisa Kocian can be reached at

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