The University of Alaska Southeast began the school year on a somber note Thursday morning.
UAS student and school bookstore employee Jody Watson, 25, of Aberdeen, Wash., died Wednesday night in a head-on collision on Brotherhood Bridge.
"This is the hardest first day of class I've ever been through," said Director of Student Services Tish Griffin Satre. "You watch all these young people coming to school and it's their first day and it's hard to get her off my mind."
Watson, a transfer from UAS Ketchikan, was a senior in the liberal arts program who was on track to graduate in spring.
She was pronounced dead after rescue personnel responded to the accident on the Glacier Highway bridge spanning Mendenhall River. The accident was reported shortly after 6:30 p.m.
Watson had stayed late at work to help get ready for the first day of school, which was typical of her character, said Paul Empson, who worked with her at the bookstore late Wednesday.
The bookstore, where she was scheduled to work Thursday, was bustling as students paid for books and tuition, but a melancholy air overshadowed the excitement usually associated with the start of classes.
Investigators from the Juneau Police Department reported that she was headed toward downtown, alone in a 1997 Dodge Neon van that struck an outbound 1993 Plymouth van on the bridge. Both vehicles came to rest in the inbound lane.
Police Capt. Tom Porter said the 22-year-old man driving the van told investigators that he was momentarily distracted and veered into oncoming traffic.
He could not identify the man or the 18-year-old woman who was his passenger. He also would not say what sort of distraction diverted the man's attention from the roadway.
Porter did not say if there could be any criminal charges filed against the man. "It's very early in the investigation," he said. "I don't want to speak to that."
A pastor from Chapel by the Lake and a grief counselor from Juneau Mental Health met with more than a dozen friends and colleagues in the Mourant Conference Room Thursday afternoon to help students and staff members deal with the loss. Stories were told, prayers were said, and Watson was still spoken of in present tense as a person having significant influence in many peoples lives.
"Jody was the sweetest person on this campus, without a doubt. She was so amiable and so helpful and so supportive," said Cachet Garrett, student body president. "There's no measure (of the loss). I'm surprised we're even open today, to tell you the truth."
"Jody always had a cheerful spirit," Empson said. "She didn't let things get her down. She was always kind to everyone and willing to learn and help."
Summer Beagle, 23, said Watson was the first friend she made in Juneau.
"Anybody will tell you here that she was really quiet and sweet, and really smart - really, really smart," Beagle said.
"I can't imagine what this (bookstore) is going through, having to be open all day long on the busiest day of the year and having to deal with the death of someone who works here who they've seen for two years straight," she said. "I can't imagine how hard it is for them."
Empson said he came upon the accident scene about 30 minutes after Watson left work. He said he didn't realize it was Watson's car until he got a message when he later returned to work.
"I was right there, you know. I saw the car not long after it happened," Empson said Thursday. "Then you just kind of go into shock. And I'm still reeling from it, just trying to realize that it really did happen. I saw her last night and now she's gone."
Flowers adorned Watson's computer Thursday afternoon, placed there by coworkers at the start of work.
"Everybody came in to work today. It's hard, but we're sticking together and grieving together," Empson said.
The loss is a devastating blow to have to deal with on the first day of classes, Griffin Satre said.
"You get attached to students that are part of your team and we had a lot of hope for her and a lot of respect for her and it's just a very sorry situation to have to deal with," she said. "It's gut-wrenching. It touches so many lives and we're such a family here. It's that feeling of losing one of your own."
"She touched a lot of people with her pure heart," said Garrett. "Everyone on this campus who knew Jody will be better for knowing her."
A memorial service for Watson will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Chapel by the Lake.
"We really want to make this a celebration of her life and we want people to come share stories about how she touched their lives," Griffin Satre said.
Empire reporter Tony Carroll contributed to this story.