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Teen Injured in Colo. Train Accident Honors Rescuers

LONGMONT, Colo. (AP) — She ran and jumped and reached.

Anna Beninati, 17 at the time, clutched the moving train, and ever-so-briefly, dangled precariously from the side.

She had already watched one friend jump onto the train and disappear as the 118-car freight train moved through Longmont on Sept. 5 at 18 mph. A second friend tried to jump, slipped, fell, and rolled to safety away from the train.

"I remember watching that and thinking, 'Something tells me I shouldn't be running right now, something tells me that is going to happen to me and I might not fare so well," said the now 18-year-old Colorado State University freshman. "I had this feeling and I went for it, anyway."

Beninati said she knew as she clung to the train in those moments that her grip was tenuous.

"I got my right leg up on the train and then my left leg was dragging on the ground," she recalled. "It ended up bouncing on the rocks underneath the train and I got sucked in, and the next thing I knew I was watching my legs get crushed by coal cars."

On Sept. 5, Beninati was only two weeks into her college career at CSU in Fort Collins. She moved from her home in Sandy, Utah, to pursue a music therapy degree in the state where both of her parents had studied. Her mother, Debbie, studied at the University of Colorado at Boulder and her father, Bill, attended the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

On Labor Day weekend, she and three friends had left Fort Collins to go to Denver for a visit. One of her friend's fathers gave them a ride to Longmont as they made their way back toward school, classes and studying. They planned to hop a train from Longmont to Fort Collins, although she said she does not believe her friend's dad knew of their plan. She is sure he would have thwarted it.

Once in Longmont, the friends examined various train crossings looking for the right place to jump. They settled near Third Avenue and Atwood Street near an auto body shop to wait for the right moment, she recalled.

"We were sitting there, drinking our glass-bottle Cokes," she said. "It was such a romantic kind of notion — these four kids getting ready to hop the rails, drinking our glass-bottle Cokes. It was a great little moment right there in the early afternoon."

She estimates she had hopped on trains about 10 times before and said it is a common practice in Fort Collins, where the rails cut through the university campus. However, the train through Longmont was faster than any she had jumped before. But her friend's stumble from the train did not deter her. Neither did her gut feeling.

Beninati clung to the train and nearly realized how dire her situation had become, but her thought never completed.

"I remember looking down at my leg dragging on the ground and I saw how fast the wheels were turning and how fast the rails were going by and it almost occurred to me, and I was like, 'Oh my god, I am gonna get..." she said, stopping up short. She swooped her hand in front of her body to represent being pulled under the train. "And then it happened."

She watched her legs as they were severed from her body, one above the knee, one below.

"I remember sitting there looking at my legs. I must have been under the train no more than four, six seconds," she said. "I just remember sitting there looking, thinking, 'A: What do I do now? B: What did I just do to myself? Because I cannot go back from this decision.'"

Her friend, Charles Hamilton, 25, rushed to her side and pulled her from under the train. A former Army medic, he started first aid. Two Longmont United Hospital employees — Nicole Crowley and Kathy Poiry — were stopped at the crossing by the train and ran to help, as well. They provided aid and called 911. Beninati's screams can be heard on the tapes as one of the women tells a dispatcher that the teen's legs had been severed.

Beninati returned to Longmont recently for the first time since the accident to personally hand out live-saving awards to Crowley, Poiry, and each of the first responders who helped her that day. She wore a black dress to the Longmont Fire Awards Ceremony and a shock of her short, dark hair fell across her forehead as she shared a laugh and a hug with each of her rescuers. Each bent down so she could loop the medals over their necks and wrap her arms over their shoulders from her seat in her wheelchair.

Beninati said she wanted to be there to meet those who helped her because on Dec. 24 she turned 18 she said she realized something important.

"I never would have made it this far if it weren't for these guys," she said.

In the moments after the accident, she recalls looking up to see their faces and remembers watching the ambulance roll up.

"It was like it hit me, 'Oh, I am going to be OK now.'"

And, by all accounts, she is.

Since Sept. 5, 2011, Beninati has had 11 surgeries on her legs.

And she has been skiing with Wasatch Adaptive Sports in Utah and plans to compete in March in the Steve Young Ski Classic. She first used an adaptive monoski in November and is excited to try out faster gear for the race. Right now she is taking online courses through CSU and plans to continue pursuit of her music therapy degree because music had been so key to her recovery in the hospital in Salt Lake City.

She recalled playing piano and a guitar in the hospital, although the bassoon is her primary instrument. She jokes that it is much bigger than she is now.

Debbie Beninati said her daughter is her hero.

"She's amazing. She has always been amazing, but now she is super amazing," she said. "I cannot say enough stuff about how proud I am of Anna."

The teen already has been to her younger brother's fourth-grade class to talk about safety issues and, she said, she has been asked to speak to CSU freshmen about the potential costs of the new freedoms offered by college.

"It is important to understand rules are sometimes put into places for your safety," Anna Beninati said, noting that the dangers of train-jumping never phased her.

Debbie Beninati said it can be a tough concept to consider, but she believes her daughter has spun potential tragedy into true lessons.

"I don't spend a lot of time feeling sorry for her because she doesn't spend a lot of time feeling sorry for herself," she said. "She's turned it into this remarkable event and just blossomed. What can I say? She is my hero. I want to be just like her when I grow up."

 

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