CHICAGO -- Since the age of 2, Rachel Barton and her violin have been almost inseparable. She has won international violin competitions, appeared as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and recently, at the age of 20, made her debut recording on compact disc.
Yesterday morning, in a tragic split-second accident, the instrument that had been her life almost caused her death.
Ms. Barton's canvas violin case, which she had slung over her shoulder, became trapped in the closing doors of a Chicago & North Western train at the Elm Street station in north suburban Winnetka. Unable to let go of the valuable instrument, she was pulled underneath the train when it started to roll.
Winnetka police say Ms. Barton was dragged for several hundred feet before a bystander heard her screams and told a railroad official to stop the train. The huge wheels severed her left leg below the knee and seriously damaged the other.
And still, while she was lying in critical condition in Evanston Hospital before surgery, Ms. Barton wanted to know if her violin had been damaged.
"She was very protective of it. She was always thinking of the violin, and always thinking of her hands," said Almita Vamos, Ms. Barton's teacher at the Music Center of the North Shore. "She has lived with a violin in her hands."
While her daughter was in surgery, Ms. Barton's mother, Amy, accompanied by police, went to the Winnetka train station to retrieve the instrument, an antique Amati on loan to Ms. Barton from the Strand Society. Some Amati violins are valued at more than $100,000.
Ms. Barton's condition was upgraded from critical to serious last night as she recovered from nearly nine hours of surgery.
Winnetka Deputy Police Chief Eric Bennett credited two witnesses with saving Ms. Barton's life.
"They raced up to her and immediately started tying tourniquets around each leg," using their belts, Chief Bennett said. "It gave the paramedics a shot."
Railroad authorities said it was unclear how Ms. Barton became trapped without a conductor noticing, but they speculated that the young woman got to the vestibule of the train too late.
"It's very rare for something like this to happen," said G. Richard Tidwell, Metra's deputy executive director.
In more than 20 years in the railroad business, Mr. Tidwell said he could think of only one or two other accidents "that even come close" to something like this.
Ms. Barton, a North Side resident, was barely 2 years old when she first heard a violin. It was during a church service, recalled Colleen Henry, the wife of the pastor at St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Chicago. Ms. Barton told her parents: "I want to do that."
Frank Little, executive director of the Music Center of the North Shore, said Ms. Barton started her studies at the center at age 6. Ms. Barton now is a teacher at the center.
"She is a treasured member of our music center family," Mr. Little said.
By age 8, Ms. Barton was a medalist in the Illinois Young Performers Competition. That year, she made the first of several appearances as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Friends say Ms. Barton's parents decided early that they would devote themselves to their three daughters' musical education. Rachel started in the Suzuki method at age 3, and subsequently taught violin to sister Hannah, now 8. Sarah Barton, 18, plays the cello.
Last year, Rachel Barton was a substitute violinist with the CSO and Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, according to Mr. Little.
Ms. Barton was a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago from 1986 to 1992 and spent her last two years as concertmaster. In 1992, she won first prize in the Bach International Violin Competition in Leipzig, Germany. Last year, Ms. Barton was the only American to enter the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Violin Competition. She also won second prize in 1992 at the Kreisler Competition in Vienna and the Svigeti International Competition in Budapest, Mr. Little said.
"In the music world, she is a competitor of Olympic quality," he said.
Almost a decade ago, Ms. Barton met Nancy Pifer of Chicago, an operatic soprano. The two became good friends, and they sometimes perform at St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Chicago.
"The beauty of her music reaches out and touches you, and that is not common," Ms. Pifer said.