The night of November 17, 2011 started out like any other for five Liberty University freshmen worship majors who wanted to enjoy each other’s company before Thanksgiving break.
Around 11 p.m., Hannah Williams, Julianne Ashbaugh, Patrick Marshall, David Duque, and Kaitlyn Hermening walked out on the River Road railroad trestle that links Riverside Park in Lynchburg to Amherst County.
The five friends wanted to stargaze after their previous plans to swing dance in downtown Lynchburg fell through.
“We walked a third to half of the way out and we had been standing out there for less than a minute when we heard the train in the distance,” Ashbaugh said.
After running for what “felt like a long time” in the dark, Ashbaugh said they knew that they were not going to make it off the tracks in time.
In a split-second, Marshall, Duque and Hermening were able to escape the train by jumping on nearby support beams. They suffered minor injuries.
Ashbaugh tried to hang over the side of the tracks while the train passed, but lost her grip and fell 90 feet to the riverbank. Williams, 18, of Sanford, N.C., was tragically killed.
Ashbaugh quickly gained consciousness a few minutes after the fall and remembers hearing one of her friends calling 911. She was immediately rushed to Lynchburg General Hospital and admitted into critical care. Ashbaugh suffered from internal bleeding, two broken wrists, a break in the radial bone in her right arm, and a broken pelvis.
The next day in convocation the Liberty community gathered together and held a special prayer time, asking for comfort for the loss of Williams and petitioning God for Ashbaugh’s life.
After miraculously surviving the near-fatal fall and spending three-and-a-half weeks in the hospital, Ashbaugh was able to finish the fall semester with her professors’ help. She said she remembers being in the intensive care unit (ICU) with her mom the day after the fall and asking if she would be able to go back to school.
Doctors, family, and friends were surprised at how quickly she was able to recover.
“The time I was in the hospital I surprised them. When I started walking it was a lot of faster than I thought,” Ashbaugh said.
She spent Christmas break in her hometown of Dallas, Ga., with her parents and her two younger sisters. She said her family has been really supportive and “has come together and been closer than before.”
She returned to Liberty in the spring semester starting classes on time. Ashbaugh describes herself as a normal college student. The only difference is a minor surgery she had a few months ago and physical therapy twice a week.
Today she can run and exercise at her leisure. As an active and enthusiastic musician, her wrists and elbow have healed so that she can play guitar and piano. Her determination fueled her recovery process and she credits the Lord for healing her quickly.
As a worship major, there have been several songs that have helped her to spiritually heal from the tragedy. One song in particular that she said aided her in understanding God’s faithfulness is “Never Once” by Matt Redman.
“Never once did we ever walk alone,” Ashbaugh said, recalling the first line of the song.
“I used to think of it (as) we got in the accident when the train came, and when I fell God came in and saved me,” she said. “But with this song I realized God was with us the whole time — when we we’re running [on the tracks], when we walked on the trestle. He was with us every step.”
Ashbaugh said the accident instantly brought the four survivors closer together.
They have had the opportunity to share their testimonies several times around campus and in the community. Ashbaugh’s friends put on a benefit concert to help her family with hospital bills.
In the closing convocation for the spring semester, the four survivors spoke to the student body and sang “Healer,” testifying to God’s grace in their life.
“I really have nothing to offer in myself. But God did a mighty work in us the past few months in getting us past this accident,” Marshall said. “All we have to proclaim is the work of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
Duque, a close friend of Williams, said he has learned the peace of God when things “don’t make sense.” He shared with the student body to live with the same example that Williams did before her death.
“Hannah lived her life completely for God. You could see in the way she acted. She was so happy all the time, so joyful,” Duque said. “I learned so much from her after the accident. I learned from her how she lived that she displayed God’s will in her life.”
Hermening read 1 Peter 5:10 and encouraged students to look to God’s faithfulness.
“Whatever you’re going through, he is still God. He is constant, He is never changing; you can always come to Him with anything,” she said.
Ashbaugh said that she has gained a newfound perspective on life in her trial: “Almost dying woke me up to the fact that we need to live now.”
“If you’re going through a trial, get a new perspective,” Ashbaugh said. “I used to view trials as a horrible thing. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to me. But after this I can see how God uses those things to bless you and other people. The verse in James says count it all joy when you go through trials. I have really come to understand that in a new way.”
Ashbaugh has a contagious joy and sweet spirit as she testifies about the grace of God in her life. She is excited for the fall semester to continue studying worship. She plans to spend her summer working in her hometown. She is also going on a mission trip to Bermuda with Hermening.