Stack of plain pancakes, without toppings or syrup
Photo: Image(s) by Sara Lynn Paige/Getty Images
Photo: Image(s) by Sara Lynn Paige/Getty Images

College student dies after choking on pancakes during sorority event

A college student at a Connecticut university died Sunday after choking during a pancake eating contest put on by Panhellenic organizations at her school. 

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Caitlin Nelson, 20, died at Columbia Medical University Center Sunday after choking on a pancake Thursday during an event at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

>> Student’s choking death in pancake contest shows dangers of competitive eating

According to the Fairfield Police Department, Nelson collapsed at the event after a nursing student observed her as being in “distress.”

A nursing student performed CPR after noticing Nelson’s pulse had diminished while waiting for authorities, the Connecticut Post reported. By the time they got there, Nelson was unresponsive and not breathing, Buzzfeed News reported. Officers attempted to clear her airway by physically removing food from her throat.

“We fortunately had some officers doing traffic enforcement (nearby),” Fairfield Police Chief Gary McNamara told the Connecticut Post. “They desperately tried to save Caitlin’s life.”

“They did the best to establish an airway,” Fairfield police Lt. Bob Kalamaras told The Associated Press. “Unfortunately, the pancake was impacted in there, in her throat, and the officers were trying to get it out.”

Authorities continued CPR as Nelson was transported to St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She was later taken to Columbia Medical Center in New York, where she died.

“You have a family that lost their very young and very vibrant daughter, and you have the Sacred Heart University community that lost one of their students,” Kalamaras told The AP. “It’s just a tragic accident.”

An autopsy is pending to determine Nelson’s cause of death. 

Nelson’s father, James Nelson, was a Port Authority police officer who died in the 9/11 attack when Caitlin was 5. 

The New Jersey native, who majored in social work, was a member of Kappa Delta sorority. She had received a scholarship for children of people killed on Sept. 11, 2001, the New York Daily News reported.

According to the Connecticut Post, Nelson had volunteered in trauma-relief efforts, including aiding survivors of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. In a 2016 interview, Nelson said her volunteer efforts were “about paying it forward.” 

“It’s about positive change,” she said at the time. “It’s about healing and helping.”

A candlelight vigil was held at Sacred Heart Sunday night. The university’s president, John Patillo, estimated more than 1,000 people attended a Mass in Nelson’s honor. 

“I was at the event when it happened,” student Kathryn Snaith told the AP. “And me and all my sorority sisters are affected greatly by it.”

“Everyone loved her and loved her personality,” student Jackie Balacki told the AP. “I don’t know much about her, but I know she is going to be missed a lot.”

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