Friends and family looked for a miracle for Cara McCollum after a car accident a week ago left the former Miss New Jersey hospitalized in critical condition with severe brain injuries. But in the end, it was not meant to be.
McCollum died at Cooper University Hospital at 4:31 a.m. Monday. On Feb. 15, she lost control of her 2014 Ford Mustang in slushy conditions along a stretch of Route 55 in Pittsgrove Township, Salem County. State police said speed was a factor and McCollum was not wearing a seat belt.
McCollum, 24, who was crowned Miss New Jersey in 2013, had been working as an anchor at SNJ Today, an upstart station broadcast out of Millville, Cumberland County.
McCollum had adopted New Jersey as her home base after beginning her studies at Princeton University in 2010. She was from Forrest City, Ark.
"Forrest City is known as the 'Jewel of the Delta,' and we certainly have lost a jewel of a person in losing Cara," said Larry Bryant, mayor of the 15,000-resident town in northeastern Arkansas.
"She is someone who was successful in life with a great future ahead of her. ... It's very sad," said Bryant. "All we can do now is support her parents in their grief."
Bryant said that he remembered meeting McCollum before she went to Princeton, from which she graduated in 2015, and that she had always attained "exceptional grades" in high school. She was valedictorian of her high school class.
"She put us on the map and she will forever be remembered as one of the exceptional people from our town," said Bryant, his voice faltering.
McCollum had been listed in critical condition the first two days following the accident, and underwent four-hour brain surgery last Tuesday, according to family friends. Information about her subsequent condition was not made public at the request of her family, said a hospital spokeswoman. News of her death came from a Facebook posting on the Prayers for Cara page, created by her boyfriend, NBC10 anchor Keith Jones.
Jones, along with members of her pageant family and her current work colleagues, had taken to social media to ask for prayers for her recovery since the accident.
"Before she died, Cara made the selfless decision to donate her organs. At this very moment, she is saving lives," Jones wrote in the post.
"We've prayed constantly for a miracle, and we believe God answered our prayers. Although it's not the miracle that we first envisioned, it's a miracle nonetheless," according to the post.
McCollum was a key player in SNJ Today's editing and production, and had finished recording the Feb. 15 newscast before the crash, the station said.
"Whether you had the privilege of knowing her or if you enjoyed her newscasts during her all-too-brief time with us, you know that her smile, her determination, and sincerity made her a beloved individual," Ken Pustizzi, president of SNJ, said in a statement Monday.
"Cara showed warmth to everyone she met. She was part of our news team family and we are gratified to have worked with her - even for such a short time. We will miss her terribly."
Throughout the last week, friends said that while they were hoping for McCollum's recovery, they were really praying for a miracle.
"I think we were all fearing this outcome," said Glenn Lillie, a former Atlantic City casino executive, who had gotten to know McCollum during her time as a newscaster. "The miracle was not meant to be."
But Lillie said McCollum's family and friends can take solace in simply having known her.
"She didn't appear to have ever wasted a day. . . . Her scant 24 years were jam-packed with acts of kindness and acts of goodness, striving for a better world and giving great joy to family and friends," he said.
Lillie praised McCollum for choosing to work in the tiny station in Cumberland County on stories that "uplifted the community," and for her founding of a charity called Birthday Book Project that has delivered 25,000 books to underprivileged children since she began it in 2008, while she was in high school.
Lillie said he "wasn't a bit surprised" to learn than McCollum had signed an organ donor card.
"She was just such an amazing person in life, so it's really no surprise there that she donated her organs," Lillie said. "There was a light and an aura about her . . . a quiet confidence. I was always taken aback by her poise and her genuine interest in everything around her, and her ability to put everyone at ease. Her passing really is quite a loss for so many people."