The comeback kid: After a devastating accident, Anna Beninati finds happiness

Published: Saturday, Oct. 27 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

She was, by her own account, a "sad, miserable" girl — standoffish, edgy, cynical. "I was in a really bad place I was the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," says Anna, and that was right down to her gauged earrings with dime-sized holes in her lobes, a small diamond stud in her nose and a punk haircut. Her mother, Debbie, an articulate, humorous, common-sense woman who is a substitute school teacher, describes it as a case of intense teenage angst in a girl who was bright, witty and aware beyond her years.

The Beninatis moved from Hawaii to Utah when Anna was 15 after her father Bill retired from the Air Force and became an ICU doctor at LDS Hospital. Alta High was Anna's ninth school and she struggled to make friends there.

"The Alta crowd didn't like me," she says.

She took refuge in music, immersing herself in band. "I haunted the practice rooms," she says. She played bassoon and was one of six students chosen to play a concerto in the school's Virtuoso Showcase. A year younger than her classmates — she was passed over kindergarten because she could already read — she excelled in her AP classes — literature, psychology and music.

Her troubled psyche manifested itself in ways more alarming than gauged earrings. She suffered from an eating disorder for nearly a year, her weight slipping to 90 pounds on her 5-foot-3 frame. Subsisting on one small meal a day, she had been receiving what her mother describes as "intense treatment" for anorexia for nine months.

"It was a dangerous, frightening thing," Anna said. "I wasn't a happy person. I thought I was grown up and knew everything."

With all that baggage, she graduated from Alta and enrolled at Colorado State at 17. "To send me to college by myself, I was set up with doctors, and I had been doing better," she says.

She made friends at CSU and was quickly swept up in campus life, but her stay there would last only two weeks. In Fort Collins, students traditionally have hopped trains as they rumble through the town, even though it is illegal, not to mention dangerous. It's part of the university culture. Anna and her friends jumped on the train a few times simply to get across town. The day before the accident, she and three friends decided to hop the train to visit a friend's family in Denver, 65 miles south. When they realized the train wasn't going to stop at their destination, they jumped off the train while it was moving at 25 miles per hour — this according to a GPS — and Anna broke a big toe.

"I took my boot off and my toe was pointing in the wrong direction," she says. If that was an omen, she ignored it, just as she would ignore her own premonitions.

The next day, Anna and her friends were given a ride from Denver to Longmont. From there they could either hitchhike or hop a train to reach Fort Collins. They chose the train. As the 118-car train slowed in Longmont, they ran to jump aboard.

Later, Anna would remember thinking for several minutes, even before the train arrived, that something was going to go wrong. She had a bad feeling about it from the beginning, but she ignored it. She ignored the feeling again even after she saw one of her friends fail to climb aboard the train. His legs dragged over the gravel until finally he had to release his grip, just as Anna would do moments later. Instead of rolling under the train, he rolled away from it.

"I saw him do that and I went for it anyway," says Anna.

What she didn't know was that one of her traveling companions, Charlie Hamilton, a 25-year-old former army medic, was running behind her telling her not to attempt the jump onto the train because it was moving too fast (about 18 miles per hour). She never heard him over the noise of the train. Anna got her right foot over the edge of the train car, but her left leg was dragging on the ground.

"It was a surreal moment," she recalls. "It occurred to me that the only thing I could do was let go. My legs went under. My head hit the ground. I looked up and saw my legs getting crushed, the train going over my legs. For a long time I would have nightmares of a red background with white splinters. I remember thinking, 'What have I done?' I felt my femur snap. I remember thinking I was going to die."

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