'She Just Lit the Room Up': Family and Friends Remember Former Miss New Jersey Cara McCollum, 24, After Fatal Car Crash

02/24/2016 AT 12:35 PM EST

"She was the one we went to when we were down, to help us feel better and to lift us up. She just kind of lit the place on fire," says Frank DiMauro, the CFO and COO of SNJ Today.

He hired former Miss New Jersey Cara McCollum as their lead anchor last July, and now, just seven months later, DiMauro and other friends and family remember the 24-year-old McCollum, who passed away Monday morning from injuries sustained in a car accident Feb. 15.

'She Just Lit the Room Up': Family and Friends Remember Former Miss New Jersey Cara McCollum, 24, After Fatal Car Crash| Miss America Pageant, Bodywatch

Cara McCollum

Mel Evans / AP

DiMauro tells PEOPLE that McCollum, fresh out of Princeton University, was the missing piece in the puzzle as he built up a news team for the SNJ Today, which put out its first broadcast in June.

"I met with her, and when she came in she just lit the room up, it was really incredible," DiMauro says. "Her energy, her charisma, her passion. And I was really impressed."

The Arkansas native was a perfect fit for DiMauro and their CEO, Ken Pustizzi, and they quickly made her an offer, as she headed to her parents home after graduation.

"I remember I called her on a Sunday, she was with her parents in Arkansas, and of course you know you start off with, 'How was your weekend? How's your family? What did you do?' " DiMauro recalls. "And she said she had gone fishing with her father that day. And that's something that I can recall doing with my own dad when I was a kid, and I said, 'Did you do the whole worm-on-a-hook thing Cara?' And she said, 'Oh yeah,' and I said I just wouldn't think that with someone who was Miss New Jersey, who was a contestant in Miss America, and she said 'Aw nah, I'm from Arkansas, we always grew up doing that kind of stuff out here.' "

"To me, that totally embodied everything that Cara was. Because if you see her on the exterior in the media, you would think she's this afraid-to-get-her-hands-dirty kind of person, but the reality was she was the complete opposite of that, she would roll her sleeves up. And then when we hired her, that's exactly what she became. She would be fearless, she would just grab a camera and go out into these areas that I was scared to death that she would go to, and she'd go and get footage and come back and edit it and put it on the news. She was just fearless."

"In my heart at the time I believed this was the perfect opportunity for her, I still do. Who would've thought that she would've had a car accident and this would've happened. I wrestle with it."

In remembrance, the SNJ Today family put together a tribute to McCollum that they ran uninterrupted Monday night in place of the news.

Her longtime boyfriend, Keith Jones, a news anchor at NBC 10 in Philadelphia, thanked everyone for their support during this difficult time in a Facebook post.

Thank you all for this tremendous outpouring of love and support for my sweet, beautiful everything, Cara. We can’t...

Posted by Keith Jones on Monday, 22 February 2016


And her fellow Miss America and Miss New Jersey contestants added their own memories of the former contestant, who worked for improved literacy in New Jersey with her Birthday Book Project, which gave underprivileged kids a book on their birthday.

Today, so many of us lost our dear sister, Cara McCollum. Each year, a group of 53 young women from coast to coast are...

Posted by Nina Davuluri on Monday, 22 February 2016


My heart breaks with sadness. I can't begin to put into words the sorrow I feel after losing my dear friend and fellow...

Posted by Lindsey Giannini on Monday, 22 February 2016


New Jersey governor Chris Christie tweeted his condolences as well, along with her alma mater.





DiMauro says that saying goodbye to McCollum will be tough for the entire SNJ Today staff and the community.

"My office is situated in such a way that you kind of look down on the door that everyone comes in the building everyday, and I just got so accustomed to see her come in each day, and leave at the end of the day, and I don't know, there's just a part of me that can't get over it, I'm waiting for her to walk in through the door," he says. "And it's just not going to happen."

"We loved her so much. There are no words to describe how much we're going to miss her."
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