Racheal Mofya sits quietly, her head down, there but not there.

Her left arm rests in a sling. She scratches at the healing scars all over her body. A plum-colored turban hides the thick, livid scars snaking around her head.

Mofya is in a gaily decorated conference room at Los Angeles County-USC Hospital for a ceremony to honor the survivors of car crashes, gang shootings and freak accidents. They had come to the trauma center near death and, improbably, had survived. As each former patient makes his or her way to the podium, he or she is applauded.

But a hush fills the room when Racheal Mofya's name is called.

Mofya was sitting in the first car of Metrolink 111 when it slammed head-on into a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth on Sept. 12, killing 25 and injuring 135.

She had so many injuries, said her surgeon, Dr. Ramon Cestero, that it reminded him of tending wounded soldiers in Iraq. She had broken bones, internal cuts, a torn cornea and burns over a tenth of her body. Worst was the head wound that kept her in a near-comatose state for two months.

As Mofya grips the table in front of her and pulls herself slowly to her feet, Cestero tells the gathering: "She had so many injuries that many didn't think you were going to make it."

The petite 27-year-old slowly shuffles to the podium unassisted. Given the microphone, Mofya simply whispers, "Thank you," and turns around to make the long walk back.

Mofya faces many more months of physical and mental rehabilitation to regain the ability to walk, read, write and speak easily. Doctors still can't say if the Zambian exchange student, who was a week away from a business degree when the crash occurred, will ever fully recover.

Quiet but bright

That Mofya was on the Metrolink train was a confluence of opportunity and luck.

The youngest daughter in a family of eight, she was raised in Lusaka, the largest city and capital of Zambia in south-central Africa. Mofya was a quiet but bright girl, studious and eager to make something of herself.

"She was a very smart kid," said her older sister, Martha, who is studying nursing in Minneapolis. "She's been always an 'A' student."

Mofya and her siblings were among the more fortunate of citizens of Zambia, where 73% of the people live below the national poverty line.

Her salesman father and teacher mother were part of a burgeoning middle class, able to send their children to school, provide a modest home and serve regular meals.

But life was not always easy. Their mother died from malaria in 1985 and, less than a decade later, their father succumbed to an intestinal illness, Mofya's sister said.

Mofya was undeterred. She received a bachelor's degree in natural resources management at the University of Zambia. She was thinking about becoming a doctor, and had been accepted to medical school, when another opportunity unexpectedly came her way.

A Rotary International program aimed at creating jobs in Zambia was taking applications for students who wanted to study in the United States. Mofya saw it as a way to fulfill a dream of traveling and quickly wrote a business plan for a company that would produce products from honey, bee's wax and a resin-like substance called propolis.

She and eight other applicants beat out 200 competitors. She heard about a business program offered by the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising and set her sights on enrolling at its Los Angeles campus.