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 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.
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.
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