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

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

Much has been made of the heroics and fast action of two nurses who, as fate would have it, happened to be waiting in their cars nearby for the train to pass. But one of the unsung heroes was Hamilton, who was right behind Anna when she fell and happened to be carrying — strangely enough — a fresh set of battlefield tourniquets in his backpack. He pulled her from under the train and, against the advice of the 911 dispatcher and nurses, applied the tourniquets, which probably saved her from bleeding out.

"Don't do that," a nurse told him, but he replied, "I know what I'm doing." Later, she would learn that she required the replacement of 200 percent of her blood.

"I wasn't really freaking out," says Anna, who never lost consciousness. "I just laid there. I did my fair share of crying. The only time I screamed was when (the nurse) said the left leg is severed."

The family was frantic of course when news of the accident reached them. Bill, the ICU doctor, flew to Colorado immediately, and the rest of the family — Debbie and Anna's two younger siblings, Mary and Gabe — followed as soon as travel arrangements could be made. The first thing Anna said to her parents when she saw them was, "Sorry." Says Debbie, "We knew that was coming. We said, 'Don't even think it. It's done. Today is a new day.'" The family's panic and fears for Anna's state of mind were allayed as soon as her siblings arrived. Mary, approaching her sister's hospital bed with considerable trepidation, gingerly asked, "How are you, Anna?"

"Well, I'm a lot lighter," she replied.

Says Debbie, "That was freakin' hilarious. Mary breathed a sigh of relief." If Anna had retained her trademark, wise-guy sense of humor, they knew she would be all right. Moments later, when Gabe entered the room, Anna did schtick again. "Gabe," she said, "I can hear you, but I can't see you." Gabe went white — omigosh, she's blind? She began feeling his face with her hands — and then stuck a finger in his ear. Finally, Gabe realized what was happening and cracked up with laughter. She was pranking him and he had fallen for it.

There were hard times ahead, of course. The family will have two sets of photos of Anna starting life, first as a baby and now as an 18-year-old — the first time she sat up by herself, the first time she fed herself and dressed herself, the first time she ate solid foods, the first time she moved around the house on her own, and so on. "It was like I was a baby again," she says. At times Anna has grown weary of the phantom pain, nightmares, surgeries, handfuls of pills, rehab, doctor appointments — she's visited the doctor at least once a week since the accident — and flashbacks, waking up in the night when she was living the accident and the pain and violence all over again. But Debbie has marveled at her daughter's resilience.

"From the very beginning she just looked the tiger in the teeth and said let's get on with it," says Debbie. "I have learned so much from her."

On a cold, gray January day, less than four months after the accident, Anna returned to the scene where she lost her legs and nearly her life. A tiny figure hunched in a dark coat against the chill, she sat next to the railroad tracks in the precise spot where she had lain bleeding four months earlier. For several minutes she sat there in silence and took in the scene, noting the police flares still on the tracks marking the scene of the horrific accident.

She had felt drawn to this place almost from the beginning of her recovery and had hoped to visit it someday. Her parents felt the same way, but said nothing, hoping she would reach the same conclusion on her own. Then came an opportunity. Anna was invited to participate in a ceremony that would honor the firefighters who saved her life. She and her family drove from their home in Sandy to Longmont, Colo., and made a side trip to the accident site located in an industrial area of the town where auto body shops and junkyards line the tracks.

There was no one else around on this winter day. Anna asked her family if she could be alone for a moment. They stayed back as Anna rolled her wheelchair to the tracks and then crawled to the place she had fallen. As she sat there, she expected to be overwhelmed with anger and panic. Instead, she was moved by the profound stillness of the scene. How could there be such calm in a place where there had been so much violence and chaos?

"I was strangely calm," she would recall later. "Like, it's OK now."

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