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How A Shirt From Target Helped A Survivor Of Deadly Amtrak Crash Heal

May 10, 2019
Originally published on May 10, 2019 5:57 pm

When Janie Dumbleton looks through her closet, she passes a clump of work clothes she hasn't updated in four years: a blazer, black pants, winter dresses.

One of the 30-year-old's favorite items is a sleeveless, floral peplum top from Target. It's black and beige, with light pink and coral flowers and a sprinkle of baby blue.

It's sturdy-feeling, silky but structured. No rips. No stains.

"It's kind of a miracle," she says.

That's because Janie was wearing the shirt on May 12, 2015, the day Amtrak Train 188 rounded a corner at 106 miles per hour — more than double the posted speed limit — and derailed in Philadelphia. Eight people died, and more than 200 were injured. It was one of the worst Amtrak accidents in history.

Janie was wearing this shirt the day the train crashed. Her mother kept it for her, and she says it helped her overcome her PTSD triggers.
Courtesy of Janie Dumbleton

Janie was on that train, sitting next to her boss, as she headed home to New York City from Washington, D.C. The sun had set — it was getting late, nearly 9:30 p.m.

She was tired but didn't want to fall asleep — it was her first work trip — so she texted with her friend Jordan. They started chatting about the TV show Grey's Anatomy, and Jordan described how one of the main characters, Derek Shepherd, died in a dramatic car accident.

"I remember texting back, 'Nothing this dramatic ever happens in real life,' " Janie recalls. "And then I looked up and I saw the accordion of the train, kind of fold and bend, and four seconds later, I'm blinking my eyes, thinking, 'OK, I'm tired. I might be in a dream.' "

But it wasn't a dream.

The train car she was riding in had derailed, and Janie found herself stuck in a crevasse. Three helicopters hovered right above the ground.

"I remember thinking, the world must have ended. I completely accepted death and I was ready to die," she says.

Janie survived that day. She lost her laptop, her ID, her bag. But her mother — who raced to Janie's hospital bed — kept her clothes.

"I don't think my mom threw them away because she wasn't sure how my life was going to unfold after [the accident] or how I was going to unfold after that," Janie says.

When Janie saw the sleeveless top and black cropped pants again for the first time, cleaned and in her closet, her body immediately reacted.

"I remember getting kind of a weird shiver. I knew right then and there, when I saw them folded, that I would keep them," she says.

Investigators and first responders work near the wreckage of Amtrak 188 in May 2015. Eight people died; over 200 were injured.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Her injuries were extensive: Janie had broken and torn all of the ligaments in her shoulder and suffered from jaw and hip injuries. She had shoulder surgery, in which a doctor added a plate and six screws. She had a hard time walking after the accident. At one point, she was going to physical therapy five days a week while she recovered at her parents' home outside Atlanta. Even now, she goes to physical therapy and experiences chronic pain.

After five and a half months, Janie and her outfit headed back to New York City. Back to her job working in conflict resolution — her normal life. But nothing felt normal.

"One way PTSD manifests is you stop thinking about a future. I didn't really realize it was happening until my PTSD counselor really challenged me, and was like, 'What do you see as your future?' " Janie says. "I don't see anything. I see nothing. I was just trying to survive."

Janie's post-traumatic stress disorder followed her everywhere. It was triggered by scenes from Grey's Anatomy and sirens on the streets. When her company moved downtown, PTSD lurked outside her new office window, in the form of a helicopter landing pad.

"All of the sudden I could see and hear helicopters. And they weren't just high in the sky, one was getting lower and lower and lower to the ground," she says. "It felt unsettling and felt like it would just transport me out of life for ... a few seconds."

When Janie decided to confront her PTSD by standing in front of the landing pad, she reached in her closet for a secret boost of strength.

"I knew I would want to put on my train wreck outfit, because I knew it would be hard and I knew I wanted a physical reminder that it was going to be OK," she says.

During her lunch break, clad in her "train wreck outfit," Janie would go watch the helicopters take off and land, pushing herself to stand closer. She did this once or twice a week for two months.

"I would just listen to the helicopter. Close my eyes and just try to really root myself in the space where I was, and think, 'You are OK. You're not in a train. And you're not in a train wreck. Nothing has derailed and no one is going to die, in this immediate moment,' " she says.

Then, one day in her apartment, Janie heard the sound of a helicopter — and wasn't transported back to the accident. Her PTSD subsided. She's no longer triggered by the sound of helicopters, but she still does not ride on above-ground trains.

Now, on demanding workdays, Janie's choice of clothes is strategic. When she leads a presentation or musters up the courage to ask for a raise, she puts on that outfit.

"My former self was in those clothes, and then the self that was in the train wreck was in those clothes, and then the self I was trying to reconstruct was in those clothes, and that woman was OK," Janie says.

Eventually, Amtrak reached a $265 million settlement with more than 100 victims and their families. And two years later, in 2018, charges including involuntary manslaughter were reinstated against the engineer. He awaits trial, which is scheduled for later this year.

As for Janie, she'll be in Italy this weekend, on her first overseas work trip since the accident. Same employer, same boss. And tucked in her suitcase will be the same black pants and floral top she wore four years ago.

She'll wear that top, wash it and then hang in her closet, unscathed, and ready to be worn again.

: 5/10/19

In a previous audio of this story, as well as in a previous Web version and caption, we incorrectly said the 2015 train derailment occurred outside Philadelphia. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the accident happened within the city limits.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Four years ago this Sunday, Amtrak Train 188 rounded a turn at 106 miles per hour and derailed in Philadelphia. Eight people died, and more than 200 were injured. It was one of the worst Amtrak accidents in recent history. Reporter Megan Tan spent some time with one survivor who has struggled to move forward.

MEGAN TAN, BYLINE: When Janie Dumbleton looks through her closet, she passes a clump of work clothes she hasn't updated in four years.

JANIE DUMBLETON: We have this work blazer, a few black pants, some winter dresses.

TAN: On one hanger - a sleeveless floral top, one of her favorites.

DUMBLETON: My 3.1 Phillip Lim for Target top. It's so sturdy-feeling and, like, kind of silky and structured.

TAN: I can't believe there are no stains.

DUMBLETON: I can't believe it, either - or rips. It's kind of a miracle.

TAN: Those fibers hugged her body on one of the worst days of Janie's life. Seated next to her boss on Amtrak 188, it was late. Janie was tired but didn't want to fall asleep on her first work trip, so she started texting her friend Jordan.

DUMBLETON: Jordan was telling me about "Grey's Anatomy," how Derek had died in a car accident. And I remember texting back, nothing this dramatic ever happens in real life. And then I looked up, and I saw the accordion of the train kind of fold and bend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: We've got live team coverage for you tonight of the derailment.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: An Amtrak train crash that has rocked the city.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: They are bandaged, bruised, some with broken bones, and many...

DUMBLETON: Three helicopters were just hovering right above the ground. I remember thinking the world must have ended, and I was ready to die.

TAN: Eight people lost their lives, and the man sitting in front of Janie lost his ability to walk. Janie would keep her life, her legs. And her mother, who raced to Janie's hospital bed, would keep her clothes. When Janie saw them again clean and in her closet, her body immediately reacted.

DUMBLETON: I remember getting kind of a weird shiver. I knew right then and there when I saw them folded that I would keep them.

TAN: After 5 1/2 months of recovery, Janie and her outfit headed back to New York City, back to her job and her normal life. But nothing felt normal.

DUMBLETON: One way PTSD manifests is you stop thinking about a future - didn't really realize it was happening until my PTSD counselor was like, what do you see as your future? Blank - it's like, I don't see anything. I see nothing. I was just trying to survive.

TAN: Janie's PTSD followed her everywhere. It manifested in scenes from "Grey's Anatomy" and sirens on the streets. When her company moved downtown, it stood outside her new office window.

DUMBLETON: All of a sudden I could see and hear helicopters, and they weren't just, like, high in the sky. One was getting lower and lower and lower to the ground. It felt unsettling and felt like it would transport me out of life for a second, just, like, a few seconds.

TAN: When Janie decided to confront her PTSD by standing in front of the helicopter landing pad, she reached into her closet for a secret boost of strength.

DUMBLETON: I knew I would want to put on my train wreck outfit because I knew it would be hard, and I knew I wanted a physical reminder that it was going to be OK.

TAN: Now on demanding work days, Janie's clothing is strategic. When she leads a presentation or musters up the courage to ask for a raise, she puts on that outfit.

DUMBLETON: My former self was in those clothes, and then the self that was in the train wreck was in those clothes. And then the self I was trying to reconstruct was in those clothes, and that woman was OK.

TAN: This weekend, she'll be on her first work trip overseas since the accident, and tucked into her suitcase will be that same floral top and pair of black cropped pants. She'll wear it, wash it and then hang it back in her closet ready to be worn again. For NPR News, I'm Megan Tan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.