Natalie Smead was a young woman fresh out of Northfield High School on a dream trip to New York, a graduation present from dad. They did it all, from Penn Station to pictures outside Saks and Gucci, a visit to the Museum of Modern Art and, finally, sunset at the Empire State Building: The world was literally spread before her.
Then in a second she was gone, slipped through the gap at the Woodside station of the Long Island Rail Road, her life cut short in a blur as she was struck by an oncoming train.
What has followed since that horrific day in 2006 has been a series of tragedies and triumphs for her father, Pete Smead: Headlines that inferred Natalie was exclusively to blame because she'd been drinking. A New York newspaper investigation that showed her death was part of a pattern of deaths and injuries caused by train platform deficiencies. A nationwide call to rectify those problems. A multimillion-dollar lawsuit. A final government report that still assigned Natalie the sole responsibility for her own death.
And finally, just a few weeks ago, the suicide of Natalie's mother, Susan Perry, who had struggled in vain to deal with the loss of her only child.
This Memorial Day weekend, however, Pete Smead will try to focus on the daughter that Natalie was and take some solace, however unequal to the loss, that in the end her death changed things for the better, one train station at time.
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Natalie Smead died in a chaotic scene that night, on her way to a Dave Matthews Band concert. As the news sifted back to Minnesota and her hometown, the main impression was that Natalie fell because she was intoxicated and didn't listen to a train conductor.
Drunk. Party girl. The images and headlines devastated her friends and family.
Natalie had spent the summer taking care of her grandmother, who was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. To those close to her, she was an effervescent, intellectually curious young woman who loved animals, was loyal to friends and looked forward to college and a career in medical sales.
"It was hard for most people to get past the headlines," said Pete Smead, who now lives in Edina. Her parents, who were divorced, never argued that Natalie, just 18, was over the legal limit for driving a car. But it was just one of many factors that may have contributed to her death, and officials used it to gloss over serious safety hazards that threatened millions of passengers, Smead said.
"I guess it takes some tragedy like this to force people to act," he said.
While a state probe said Natalie bore some responsibility for the accident, an investigation by the newspaper Newsday found more than 900 accidents caused by wide gaps between trains and platforms, including a small boy who fell to the tracks and a Radio City Rockette who fell and became a quadriplegic.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., launched legislation to fix gap problems nationwide, the LIRR began repairing platforms and settled a $1.5 million lawsuit with the family. Yet, when the National Transportation Safety Board released its final assessment of the accident, it not only ignored those facts, it also failed to mention witness testimony that train doors closed on Natalie, and bystanders yelled conflicting instructions to her, among other things.
Natalie's mother, who had suffered from depression, called the NTSB report "cruel" in an e-mail to friends. Two weeks after reading it, she hanged herself.
The family's attorney reacted with an angry letter to the NTSB, calling the report "sloppy" and "lazy."
"As to her mother, Susan Perry, who had survived 2 1/2 years and had agreed to the settlement prior to the issuance of your report and committed suicide three weeks after the issuance of your report, I will leave you to your own rationalization," he wrote.
This weekend, Peter Smead chooses to focus on the good that came from Natalie's death.
"I just want people to know the world lost a caring, warm-hearted woman looking forward to the next stage of life," said her father. "Her death caused people to make changes in the railroad system. As a teenager, she wanted to make a difference, like all people do. This is her legacy."
The poem Natalie wrote as a young girl, now on her grave, seems prophetic:
As one snowflake fell
to earth with millions of others
it made a difference.
Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702