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Choking Victim's Family Ready to Sue Over 911 Incompetence

TAMPA -- More than a year has passed since Nancy McGhee choked to death while Pasco County (Fla.) 911 operators fought over who should take the phone call from her boyfriend.

Martha Callahan still fumes, though, when she recalls the unnecessary death of her 37-year-old daughter.

"Nancy was a person who always tried to help anyone out, and when she needed help no one was there to help her," Callahan said.

Wednesday, Clearwater attorney Tom Carey announced his intent to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Pasco County's Department of Emergency Services on behalf of Callahan and McGhee's four children.

State law bars Carey from filing the suit for the next six months, giving the county time to investigate.

Senior Assistant County Attorney Anthony Salzano said he hadn't received a written notice from Carey and couldn't comment on it.

Callahan, 70, of Lake Placid, and McGhee's oldest daughter, Crissy Cresong, gathered at Carey's office to answer questions from reporters.

Cresong, 17, who also lives in Lake Placid, said she and her mother shared a close relationship, even though she has been raised by her paternal grandmother.

"She was very outgoing, very loving," Cresong said. "She had good advice sometimes and was just a really good person. We had our arguments but, hello, I'm a teenager. We were going to have those."

Callahan said any damages won in the suit would go to McGhee's children. Her two sons, Steven and David, and younger daughter Kelly live in foster homes in the Tampa Bay area.

The chances for the children to collect substantial damages are slim, Carey said. State laws cap damages in lawsuits against governments at $100,000, although in certain cases it increases to $200,000.

Plaintiffs can collect more, but to do so a jury must award them the damages at trial, and those amounts must be approved by the Legislature. Such approval usually takes years and rarely happens, Carey said.

McGhee's boyfriend, Chris Cooper, called 911 from the couple's Land O' Lakes home March 24, 2007, when McGhee began choking on a piece of steak. Pasco emergency dispatcher Jennie Montanino answered the call.

Montanino wasn't trained to instruct Cooper in the Heimlich maneuver, so she asked a supervisor to help. No one answered. When she asked again, two emergency medical dispatchers refused to help.

Six minutes later, shift supervisor David Cook took over the call. Cook instructed Cooper to perform the Heimlich maneuver, but it didn't work.

Paramedics arrived at the home on Tower Road 12 minutes after Cooper called 911. McGhee already was dead.

Emergency Services Director Anthony Lopinto investigated the incident but came up with no explanation of why Cook and lead communications officer Maureen Thomas refused to answer the call when Montanino asked.

Dispatchers interviewed during the investigation told Lopinto that when Cook learned McGhee had died, he said jokingly, "She must have bit off more than she could chew."

Cook took early retirement, and Thomas resigned shortly after the incident.

Reporter Todd Leskanic can be reached at tleskanic@tampatrib.com or (727) 815-1084.

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