Local News

Stargazing turns to tragedy for Sanford college student

Posted November 18, 2011 11:02 a.m. EST
Updated November 18, 2011 6:50 p.m. EST

— 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."

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.