SALT LAKE CITY — There are still mornings when she forgets that it happened. Anna Beninati will wake up and roll out of bed, just as she always did. It's only when she crashes to the floor that she remembers: Her legs are gone.
"That actually happens a lot," she says.
It's been a year since she lost her legs while trying to hop a train in Colorado in an accident that reverberated nationwide, at least partly because of the recorded 911 call. She has only inches remaining of her left leg, and half of her right leg.
Anna has had terrifying flashbacks that wake her in the middle of the night, bathed in a cold sweat. But after a year and 11 surgeries, she has gradually distanced herself from the accident in some ways, although in other ways she has drawn it closer. Last January she returned to the scene of her accident, but more on that later. She has tattooed the date of that fateful day on her left arm — September 5, 2011.
"I've made my peace with it," she says. "It's not ruling my life. I was angry for four months. This is my fault. There was no one but myself to blame. I had to forgive myself for being stupid. I had to own it."
The irony is that she has never been happier in her life.
On a recent morning she was talking to students at Lone Peak Elementary, not far from her home in Sandy. At 18, she is not much older than some of the students. She punctuated her speech with giggles and "you knows," bounced nervously in her chair and drummed the seat absentmindedly with the stump of her right leg. All that youthful energy has to go someplace now that she is mostly confined to a chair.
The kids are riveted, not only by her condition but by her spunkiness, the weight of her words and her sense of humor (when she shows a photo of her siblings to the kids, she says, "I used to be their big sister; now I'm their little sister.").
Her messages are the simple, hard-earned lessons of the accident. Listen to your inner voice — "If it doesn't feel right, don't do it," she tells her audience. Life goes on after setbacks — "My first week home from the hospital, I was really angry," she says. "I had to make a choice. Either stop where I am and do nothing but wallow in self -pity about why I don't have legs or get on with it. You can give up or get up. My second week home from the hospital I decided today is the day I'm going to figure out all the things I can do."
That turned out to be many things. She took up hand cycling, weightlifting, bungee jumping, bowling, horse riding, swimming and rock climbing. She learned to drive again. "I learned to do handstands and wheelies in my chair," she says. In November she will begin training for paralympic ski competition five days a week. She coaches other disabled people through Snowbird's Wasatch Adaptive Sports program. She mentors members of the Utah Youth Symphony once a week. She plays guitar, piano and bassoon. She is taking online classes with plans to resume her music therapy studies at Colorado State.
"My accident was not the end of having fun," she tells the kids. "I let my disability be the start of a new life. I do things now that I couldn't or wouldn't do before. Every day is an opportunity for discovery."
Later, when she is away from the kids and alone with an interviewer, she tells a different part of the story that is darker and even more redemptive. You wouldn't know it to observe her now, but she was an angry, unhappy teenager suffering from anorexia before the accident.
"I never liked rules," she says with a wry smile. "Which is why I'm here in a wheelchair."
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."
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."
After several minutes alone, she called to her family to join her, and she recalled for them the events of that day — This is where I started running. This is where I jumped. This is where I was lying.
As they prepared to leave, she saw an old metal railroad spike adjacent to the track. She picked it up and slipped it into her pocket. "Maybe I was looking for closure for myself, or maybe deeper acceptance," she would say months later. "It helped."
"It was cathartic for all of us," says Debbie. "I think it's something she's going to have to revisit again — probably several times."
During the ceremony to honor Longmont firemen, Anna charmed everyone by getting out on the floor during the dance hour and dancing in her chair. "When I had legs, I didn't dance," she told her mom later. "Now I get out there every chance I get."
That's symbolic, if nothing else. By all accounts, she has embraced life more fully since her accident, as evidenced by the whirlwind schedule of activities she maintains.
"Weirdly enough, I am much happier now than I was with legs," she says. "I tell people that all the time."
The eating disorder is cured. The day after her accident, she wouldn't eat, but the next day she decided that was the end of anorexia. She began eating and has never relapsed. "I decided I've suffered enough," she says. "This (the accident) fixed the eating disorder."
When she returned to her old friends, she recalls, "They were shocked at how positive I was." It is difficult to reconcile this bubbly, giggly Anna with the pre-accident character she and her mother describe. Thinking of this for a moment, Anna says, "The way I am now is how I was supposed to be. This is the real me."
"I would have to agree," says Debbie. "I just think she has this focus now. You know the things that teenagers worry about and think about that adults would say aren't things you have to worry about? Well, she grew out of that really fast on Sept. 5th. Everything that didn't matter became clear to her."
There are still moments of wistfulness. One day she was in Liberty Park, training hand cyclists, when she spied a four-leaf clover. She made a wish that her legs would grow back. "But they didn't," she sighs. "I would give anything to be able to stand up and walk again. I miss that."
She will soon get her wish. She is being fitted for prosthetics. Anna presents a special challenge for therapists — she doesn't have knees, and there is so little remaining of the left leg that there is almost nothing to attach to a prosthetic (eventually, they might place a screw in the bottom of what remains of the femur and attach the artificial limb that way). For now, she will learn to walk with a prosthetic right leg and crutches.
"I'm so excited," she says. "I was told by my therapist to bring a pair of tennis shoes next week! They asked me what height I was before the accident and what my shoe size was. That makes it so real."
Anna's state of mind, as she looks ahead, is best summed up by her mother: "She has goals," says Debbie. "She has direction."
Anna aspires to work with autistic children through music and is engaged in school, a rigorous schedule and a personal life. She has a boyfriend — "He can pick me up with one arm and the wheelchair with the other," she says brightly. She has resumed a playful relationship with her family, which gives her no special treatment. Gabe has been known to steal her chair and race across the room in it. "I have to get on the floor and chase him like a demented gorilla," says Anna, who wrestles with her little brother, using her right leg as a club "to hit him on the head with." Mary announced one day to her sister that she had named Anna's legs — Harrison (left) and Rafael (right).
"She and her sister have this wicked sense of humor," says Debbie. "No-leg jokes are flying everywhere."
Looking back, Anna regrets her loss, but notes, "The rewards are totally worth it. I'm fitter and healthier now that I ever was. I'm doing things I never thought I would do."
Says Debbie, "The one time she does something truly rebellious, she train hops. Think of all the kids who do this and get away with it. But I say look where she is now. And she's actually better off. And she's impacting life. She's not just sitting around."