Aaron Hill knew the road well, and not just because it was the route he took to high school every day. The five-mile stretch of highway was named in memory of his father, a soldier killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2008.
But on his way to class Thursday morning, the 18-year-old senior was killed when a pickup truck crossed the center line and smashed head-on into his car, authorities said.
Now the Hill family — and many others in this town of nearly 2,300 — are grieving again.
"It's tragic. No one should have to go through this. They've been through so much," said Sheriff Chuck Wright, a friend of the family. "It's just unreal that he died on the same highway named after his father."
The younger Hill was going to graduate in a few months and had talked about joining the military just like his father.
"Even after his father's death, he kept a positive attitude. He kept that smile," the sheriff said.
The teenager was pronounced dead at the scene along the section of two-lane Highway 129 known as the Sergeant Shawn F. Hill Memorial Highway. The driver of the pickup, Michael Blake White, 27, was taken to the hospital along with three students who had been in Hill's car. Their conditions were not released.
The cause of the crash was under investigation and no immediate charges were filed. But state officials said the other driver did not have a valid driver's license, having lost it nearly a year ago for speeding.
Hill's friends from 2,200-student Byrnes High School held hands and cried at the scene of the accident and set up a memorial to "A-Rod" consisting of flowers, candles and three crosses painted green and orange, because he was a University of Miami fan. Spray-painted on the road was a heart with the words "RIP AROD."
Wright said he got to know the family years ago when Hill and the sheriff's son were playing baseball. It was the sheriff who went to the accident scene and identified the body Thursday. Then he visited with Hill's family. He said Hill's mother, Julie, was distraught but trying to hold her together a family that includes Hill's two younger brothers.
Hundreds of people attended the funeral three years ago of Hill's father, a 37-year-old member of the Army National Guard, and state lawmakers renamed the highway in his memory months later.
The elder Hill was an all-region defensive end at Byrnes High, a longtime football powerhouse that has won nearly a dozen state titles and has been nationally ranked. An electrician by trade, he joined the National Guard in 1996 and served in Iraq in 2004-05.
At the Hill home in Inman, family members were inside grieving, and no one wanted to talk. On the back window of a blue minivan parked outside was a pair of praying hands with the words "In loving memory of Sgt. Shawn Hill."
Ondrea Reid, a former neighbor, said Aaron Hill took his father's death hard — harder than his siblings because the two had bonded over playing sports together. Aaron Hill told her he was thinking about joining the military to honor his dad.
"I remember he told people he planned to finish school, go to college and make sure he did something to make his dad proud," she said.
On Friday, Reid drove down the road where Aaron Hill died, past the green memorial sign honoring his father and the makeshift memorial at the crash scene.
"It's really something to see the sign honoring such a great man and then drive a little more and see a memorial to his son," Reid said, pausing to take a deep breath. "Man, it's just crazy."