A Violinist's Brave Encore

updated 07/24/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/24/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ALL ALONG," SAYS RACHEL BARTON, "I KNEW THAT IN the end I would still be able to perform. I knew that I would be able to play my violin in front of people, whether I was in a wheelchair or standing on artificial legs. So that was what I was holding on to. I still am."

On Sunday, July 16, Barton, a courageous 20-year-old prodigy, was scheduled to make her much-anticipated return to the Chicago classical music scene, playing the Anton Dvorak Violin Concerto with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra at Grant Park. Barton would perform her comeback solo from a wheelchair, as she is not yet ready to stand on her own. In fact it is something of a miracle that she is performing at all.

Last Jan. 16 the red-haired virtuoso was horribly maimed when her precious violin became trapped in the closing doors of a commuter train. She was dragged several hundred feet before shocked commuters could alert the engineer to stop—but not before the wheels of the train had severed her left leg and cut off part of her right foot. Amazingly, Barton's 378-year-old, $400,000 Amati violin, which she has on loan, survived intact—as did her determination to play again.

"Itzhak Perlman is an inspiration to me—he performs in a wheelchair," she says of the famed violinist, who had polio as a child. And although her own present confinement to a chair has caused some depression, she vows, "Eventually I'm going to get out of this thing."

Barton grew up in Chicago, the oldest daughter of Terry Allen Barton, a salesman, and Amy, a former social worker, who divorced this year. Schooled entirely at home, Rachel was 3 ½ and her sister Sarah 2 ½ when Amy started taking them to a local violin teacher. "My mom's friends told her that it would be really cheap and good for my social skills," says Rachel. "I ended up falling in love with it."

By the time she was 10, and chosen to solo with the Chicago Symphony, it was clear the instrument loved her back. At 11, she began playing in the first violin section of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. In 1993 she won a bronze medal at Brussels' Queen Elizabeth International Violin Competition, the most prestigious in the world, and last year Barton released her first compact disc, a rendering of virtuoso pieces by Spanish composer Sarasate.

On the morning of her accident, Barton was getting off the train at the Winnetka station to hike over to the Music Center of the North Shore, where she taught 24 violin students. Barton is reluctant to discuss the accident, partly because she is suing the train company, Metra. But the men who saved her life remember that morning well.

Commodities trader Brian McCarthy recalls walking to the vestibule of the train as it was leaving Winnetka station. As he approached the vestibule, he says he heard "numerous loud screams of desperation" emitted by Rachel. When he heard a passenger shout about a young girl whose violin was caught in the doors, McCarthy began banging on a row of emergency buttons, causing the engineer to stop the train. Jumping down onto the tracks, he saw Barton and instinctively took off his belt and wrapped it around her leg as a tourniquet. "The artery in her left leg was just spurting," says Jim Tuck, McCarthy's friend, who came along minutes later and applied his belt as well. "But Rachel was very coherent. She gave us her name, told us her mother's phone number and was worried if her violin was okay. Her strength of character was obvious."

Barton was rushed to Evanston Hospital, where she endured nine hours of surgery that day. Altogether, she has undergone 20 operations. Her left leg was amputated above the knee. Part of her right foot had to be cut away, and she has a bone graft below her right knee, which, she says, was shattered "in a thousand pieces."

As word of Rachel's accident spread, friends and teachers streamed into the hospital, and at one point 70 people were waiting in the lobby. "My friends would walk into the room and say, 'Oh my God, you are alive. We still have you,' " says Rachel. "Everyone told me how beautiful I looked. Then they said, 'We are going to take you dancing again.' "

During the next few months, all of Chicago seemed to be following her progress. Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Daniel Barenboim led local musicians in a benefit concert that raised $75,000, and on May 4, the day the Chicago Bulls invited her to play the national anthem before a play-off game, she received a standing ovation.

World-class musicians showed their support. While she convalesced at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Barton received notes from violinists Perlman and Isaac Stern and conductor Pierre Boulez. Conductor Zubin Mehta paid a visit. Then the most exciting thing of all happened: Slash sent her flowers. "He signed the card 'Slash, Guns N' Roses guitarist,' " says Barton, "like I would think it was some other Slash. Not only did I know who he was, they are my favorite band!"

Has she written him back? "I need to find the exact words," she says, adding wistfully, "I think he is actually married to a red-haired woman."

Barton, who came home in February, has just started to regain her strength. Due to a bone infection contracted in March, she was not able to begin her rehab until three weeks ago. But she recently confided to a friend that she had practiced the violin all day. And she did a run-through at home with Daniel Hege, music director of the Chicago Youth Symphony, of the Dvorak concerto they planned to play in Grant Park. "She was an amazing player before the accident, and she is an amazing player now," says Hege.

Still, Barton is irked that she will be playing on Sunday in her wheelchair, especially since she vowed last March that she would walk onstage for her first concert. "There is no way I am going to be able to walk for this concert," she says. "But my next goal is to see what kind of shape I will be in on Oct. 11, my 21st birthday, because it would really be sad if I couldn't go dancing."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
GIOVANNA BREU in Chicago

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