JANA CURRIER helped her nephew pick out his engagement ring.

"He chose the most perfect stone," Currier said last night as she choked back tears. "He was going to propose in June. They had it all planned out.

"He was over the moon."

She spoke in the past tense because Zachary Woods will never get the chance to carry out that proposal. The man, whom his aunt described as "exceptional," died late Tuesday, hours after he was struck by a car in University City.

"I can't tell you how many times I've said throughout his life that they don't make them any better than Zach," Currier said. "This man, in 27 years, lived a life more full than people who live twice as long."

That life included a successful Division III swimming career, five years of living and working in China, and, most recently, acceptance into the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton School, where he planned to study international trade and development in Wharton's Lauder Program.

Woods, a native of Monroe, N.Y., had just moved to Philadelphia on Sunday, his aunt said, and was looking forward to starting his new academic pursuit.

Then, the unthinkable happened as he strolled in the sunshine Tuesday morning over the Walnut Street overpass at 30th Street.

Police gave the following account of the tragedy:

A speeding sedan ran a red light, smashing into another car and spinning toward the sidewalk.

Woods saw the carnage coming and tried to leap to safety by grabbing a nearby traffic-light pole.

But the out-of-control car kept coming. It smashed into pedestrian and pole, sending both plummeting to the pavement 38 feet below. Workers scrambled to help the dazed and bleeding Woods. But 12 hours after the freak accident, Woods succumbed to his injuries at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, leaving the campus community mourning a promising student whom most never got the chance to know.

"The entire Penn community is deeply saddened by Zachary Woods' tragic death," the school said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this very difficult time."

The wide network of people whom Woods had touched during his life struggled yesterday to cope with the news of his death.

In Connecticut, Peter Solomon could barely fathom that the bright, charismatic kid he had coached on the swim team at Middlebury College, a small liberal-arts school in Vermont, was gone.

"He was just a funny, crazy guy that everyone loved to be around," said Solomon, who now coaches Wesleyan University's swim team. "He brought everyone together with his personality."

Woods was a superstar in and out of the water, juggling a tough course load as a Chinese major at Middlebury with an equally demanding training regimen for the swim team.

It paid off. He broke three varsity records before graduation, and placed 11th in the 200-meter backstroke at the 2009 NCAA Championship, according to Solomon.

"Zach had everything in order," his former coach said. "I'm just grief-stricken trying to process everything."

After Middlebury, Woods traveled to China, where he put his major to good use, immersing himself in the country's business world at several firms.

He even found love: Woods met his girlfriend, an expat from Georgia, while working in Shanghai. She remains overseas, and he was all set to return to her in June for the proposal.

"This boy was a gift," said Currier, his aunt. "The 27 years he was with us were a gift to everyone that crossed his path."

Woods' friends met last night at his favorite New York restaurant - American Flatbread, in Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood - to honor his memory, Currier said. The family hopes to have plans for his funeral organized by early next week.

"We want people to know who he was, how his life touched so many people," Currier said.

"We don't understand why it happened this way. He had the world at his feet."