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Family Furious that Investigators Find No Fault in Daughter's Choking Death

By Gwynne Hogan | November 14, 2016 4:08pm
 7-year old Noelia Echavarria before and after hospitalization.
7-year old Noelia Echavarria before and after hospitalization.
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David H. Perecman

WILLIAMSBURG — The family of a 7-year-old girl who died after choking on a sandwich in her elementary school's after school program is furious that investigators found no one culpable for the child's death.

A 19-page report released last week by the School's Special Commission of Investigation, more than a year after the death of Noelia Echavarria in P.S. 250, outlines a frantic scene, pieced together from interviews with students, staff and teachers where they took desperate turns at the Heimlich maneuver then CPR as the little girl vomited up blood and phlegm, and then turned lifeless and blue.

The report drew no conclusions, though an attached press release said that Richard Condon, the head of SCI, had found no misconduct leading up to Noelia's death.

"If it weren’t for them she’d still be here," said Tita Santiago, 60, in Spanish. "I’d still have my granddaughter. They didn’t do anything.”

"They didn't save her," she said.

The girl's mother Ana Iris Santiago sued teachers and staff, the Department of Education, St. Nick's Alliance — which was running the afterschool program Noelia was a part of when she started choking — and Emergency Skills, Inc, the company that certified staff and teachers in CPR. 

The mother argues that Noelia wasn't properly supervised and staff members lacked the training needed to save her life. An earlier notice of claim filed with the city valued the wrongful death suit at $53 million, her lawyer David Perecman said.

The choking occurred on Oct. 21 of 2015, at 108 Montrose Ave. Noelia was spotted by students running across the school's cafeteria eagerly trying to get to the line while chewing a on a sandwich or a piece of bread, according to interviews in the SCI's report.

The girl slipped and fell and started and started choking just before 2:30 p.m., where she was being supervised by staff from an after school program run by St. Nick's Alliance, according to the report.

When St. Nick's Alliance staff members realized she was choking they took turns unsuccessfully trying to do the Heimlich and then CPR, as supervisors got wind of the chaos and rushed to the scene.

There were two 911 calls from school employees, both at 2:32 p.m. that day, the report said. An ambulance was dispatched five minutes later but Noelia was not rushed to the hospital until 2:51, nearly twenty minutes after initial calls, according to the report.

Nurse Vilna Campbell refused to do CPR or check the girl's mouth for obstructions, and claimed "she's not choking" shortly before her death, according to staffers interviewed by investigators.

In addition, witnesses said Campbell looked through her bag instead of helping the child, according to the investigation.

When SCI interviewed Campbell she confirmed that she did not perform CPR because other people were doing it when she ran down to the hectic scene.

She also told investigators that she yelled at another teacher to get a defibrillator‎, checked the girl's pulse and tried to administer the defibrillator. She claimed it wouldn't work because Echavarria still had a pulse when paramedics arrived on the scene.

St. Nick's Alliance staffer Anelic Polanco, one of the first to try to give the girl the Heimlich, said no one from the school's staff tried to do the Heimlich maneuver, and that Principal RoseAnn LaCioppa tried chest compressions instead and then began to cry.

LaCioppa denied the claim and said she had tried the Heimlich before attempting CPR to save the girl, the report said.

During the course of their investigation, the SCI received an anonymous letter claiming that Emergency Skills, Inc, the company which certified staff members in CPR, had given them passing grades without them taking the course.

They went back and re-interviewed staff members who said they didn't know anything about people who'd gotten certification without taking the course. The got copies of their CPR certifications from the company via email.

"The whole thing struck me as an incomplete effort to get at the truth of why this child died," said Perecman, adding he hoped the truth would come out during his own investigation as part of the civil lawsuit. "Nobody's at fault. Nobody did anything wrong. Nobody gets reprimanded. Nobody gets punished in any way, shape, matter or form."

The lawyer said the fact that the SCI didn't find any wrongdoing didn't come as a surprise.

"It's the third time they've done the same thing...Nothing," he said.

He's referring to two other high profile deaths of students in public schools, where he is also advocating for the families involved — Dyasha Phelps Smith, a 21-year-old special needs student who died after choking on a muffin at her Brooklyn school in 2014, and Avonte Oquendo, the 14-year-old autistic boy whose body was found in the East River after he vanished from his Queens school also in 2014.

In those two cases the SCI's report found no one at fault, he said, though one of the lawsuit's yielded Oquendo's family settled for $2.7 million with the city. The other lawsuit is still pending, Perecman said.

"I have a feeling if this child had been at home when this happened that she’d be alive today," he said.

St. Nick's Alliance and Emergency Skills, Inc, didn't respond to a request for comment immediately.

Department of Education spokesman Will Mantell said they were deeply saddened by Noelia's loss.

“Our thoughts are with Noelia’s family and the P.S. 250 community.”

The girl's grandmother said more than a year since Noelia's death, the whole family is still reeling.

“Her brother is filled with rage inside,” Santiago said, of Noelia's 14-year-older brother. "It’s the saddest, for the whole family."

"We’re all suffering.”