Sacred Heart University is mourning the loss of a 20-year-old student who died after complications following a pancake eating contest at the Fairfield, Connecticut, campus.
Caitlin Nelson of Clark, New Jersey, was competing in a Greek Life food-eating competition on March 30 when she began shaking uncontrollably and fell to the floor, according to local reports.
She had consumed “several” pancakes and when officers arrived she was “unresponsive and not breathing,” PEOPLE confirms with the Fairfield Police Department. Nelson had allergies, but medical staff hasn’t been able to confirm that the allergies were a “contributing factor to the incident,” according to police.
“Our officers were on the scene quickly,” Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara tells PEOPLE. “They recognized the gravity of the situation immediately and desperately and heroically tried to clear her airway. Tragically, the obstruction was not easily cleared and that lack of oxygen for that amount of time ultimately caused severe damage.”
Nelson’s father, James Nelson, was a Port Authority officer killed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. He was helping evacuate people from the 27th floor of one of the Twin Towers when it collapsed, according to CTPost.com. Caitlin was 5 years old at the time of her father’s death.
Nelson was studying social work at Sacred Heart, according to her Facebook page. Vice president of her Kappa Delta sorority’s community service, she led the organization’s philanthropy and planned Girl Scout events.
SHU held a service for Nelson, which was attended by thousands of students, faculty and staff.
“The service was followed by an impromptu candlelight vigil as community members consoled one another and offered prayers for Caitlin and her family and friends,” SHU spokesperson Deborah Noack tells PEOPLE in a statement. “The SHU flag has been lowered to half-staff in Caitlin’s memory.”
Nelson also volunteered to support trauma victims from the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
In 2016, she told tapintoclark.net that it was “about positive change, it’s about healing and helping. It’s about paying it forward.”
“Our officers, some of them fathers, are heartbroken at this tragedy and their inability to save her,” MacNamara tells PEOPLE. “We remain in touch with her family and will continue to assist in any way, as we all, the school, students, family, and police try to cope with this.”