Local News

Stargazing turns to tragedy for Sanford college student

Posted November 18, 2011

— An 18-year-old freshman at Liberty University died Thursday night after she was hit by a train while stargazing, authorities said.

Hannah Emmaline Williams, of Sanford, went with a group of students to look at stars on a railroad trestle in Madison Heights at about 10:45 p.m. A northbound train crossed the trestle, forcing the group to flee, authorities said.

Williams was hit by the train and killed. Julianne Ashbaugh, 18, of Temple, Ga., fell from the trestle and was listed in critical condition at Lynchburg General Hospital.

Patrick Marshall, 18, of Lynchburg, Va., Javier David Duque, 19, of Arlington, Texas, and Kaitlyn Hermening, 18, of Mosinee, Wis., were treated for minor injuries and released. Two of the three were able to jump to a nearby piling and avoid the train, while the third hung below the track on the trestle, authorities said.

Williams graduated from Grace Christian School in Sanford, where she served as student body president. She attended the school since kindergarten.

Headmaster Bill Carver called her death devastating. About 270 students attend Grace Christian, including Williams' younger brother, and her mother teaches there.

"When Hannah left here, she left as one of our exceptional students," Carver said. "There was such an excitement and an expectation – a vision really of what she was going to bring to the world – and that's part of what makes it hard to say goodbye."

Grace Christian School in Sanford Private school struggles to cope with graduate's death

English teacher Pamela Beal said Williams went to Liberty to become a journalist.

"She loved words. She loved expressing herself in words," Beal said. "We're all surrounding (her mother) with all the love and support we know how to give her right now."

Liberty University President and Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. said Williams made her presence known at the school in the short time she was there, noting that she volunteered to help victims of floods in the Northeast this fall.

"Hannah Williams made Liberty University proud in her short time as a student here. Her tragic death is a great loss, not only to her family, but to our university community as well," Falwell said in a statement.

Longtime friend Logen Hodges said all who knew Williams are now trying to find comfort in the example she set.

"She loved everything about life. If there was the worst situation possible, she always found the good in it," Hodges said.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • PoBoy Nov 18, 2011

    God be with the families and friends that are going thru the pain of this tragedy.

  • Turn the page Nov 18, 2011

    To all of the classless, insensitive poor excuse for humans that suggest and insist that Hannah was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you have no idea what you are talking about. Hannah never drank and loved her freshman year at Liberty and would do nothing to jeopardize that. That behavior is grounds for expulsion at Liberty, a Christian University.
    After reading the hateful post from earlier today I see just how far in decline America is. Instead of sympathy for her family you post hateful comments and wral allows that and scrubbed my tame responses.
    Put down your computers and go back to your "occupy protest" for those of you that jugded Hannah and did not know her. She was an incredible young lady that made those that around her better.

  • meredith2981 Nov 18, 2011

    I am sure that the parents and families of these five young students are not interested in telling them the dangers of trestles and trains... I am sure that actually four students are not hearing comments like some of you have made because they are just thankful that their daughter or son was not Hannah Emmaline Williams. I am sure that if her parents could speak another word to her, it would not be of the poor decision that she and the others made.
    I guess that when its not your own family its much easier to pass judgement with the "shame on you" comments. I guess that many of you were never 18-years-old and not once ever made a descision that could affect the lives of not only yourself but of others.
    I am the family of Julieann Ashbaugh and happen to know that she is a good girl, a beautiful girl and a music ministry major at Liberty University. She has suffered extensive injuries and will never be the same.

  • luckn4u2 Nov 18, 2011

    I guess she didn't hear the train whistle..

  • avidreader Nov 18, 2011

    This happened to a couple when I was at Liberty 34 years ago. Such a tragedy - could have been prevented.

  • touchofgrey Nov 18, 2011

    I used to live about 5 minutes from this trestle. There are signs ALL OVER THE PLACE, tall fences, everything to warn people that it is illegal and exceptionally dangerous to go on the trestle. It is huge- I'd say over 300 yards long, and probably 250 feet above the James River. No excuse for being on the trestle- at all. Stargazing? No way.

  • wildcat Nov 18, 2011


  • wildcat Nov 18, 2011

    My condolences to the family and many friends. May God bring comfort and joy to all of you in the days ahead.

  • laurenfedorov Nov 18, 2011

    Surely there were safer places to stargaze than this.

  • thefensk Nov 18, 2011

    Used to live a few blocks from there ... all too common for kids to go on that trestle. It doesn't matter if you hear the train. You don't have any place to go. There are other trestles near Liberty as well ... the kids use them as shortcuts to bars.