Husband Liam Neeson and her famous family cope with the unimaginable after she suffers a devastating brain injury on the slopes

By Michelle Tauber Michelle Tan
March 30, 2009 12:00 PM

It was supposed to be a fun family getaway. On March 15 actress Natasha Richardson arrived at the Coco Pazzo restaurant at Quebec’s Mont Tremblant ski resort, looking like so many other fellow vacationers, thrilled to escape the daily grind. “She looked very relaxed, joie de vivre,” says the general manager Chrystian Carbonneau. Later she was joined by loved ones, and the group enjoyed a festive dinner together. “They all had some pasta. They had a good time,” says Carbonneau. “They looked very happy.”

Within 24 hours the mood drastically changed. The next day the Tony-winning star (for 1998’s Cabaret), 45, suffered severe brain injury after a ski accident in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains. Neeson, 56, who has two sons, Micheal, 13, and Daniel, 12, with Richardson, had rushed from a Toronto film set to stand vigil by her side. On March 17 she was flown home to New York City, and word spread among family and friends that she is not expected to recover. And in England and America, her famous loved ones—she is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave, sister of Nip/Tuck actress Joely Richardson and granddaughter of the legendary late British stage actor Sir Michael Redgrave—were left to grapple with a tragedy. “This is awful,” said Kika Markham, wife of her uncle Corin Redgrave. “All we can do is wait.”

According to Catherine Lacasse, a spokeswoman for Mont Tremblant Resort, the actress’s injuries initially appeared minor. On vacation at the resort, Richardson, who was not wearing a helmet, was taking a ski lesson on March 16 when she took a tumble down the beginners’ run. “Two ski-patrol officers came down and checked her out,” says Lacasse. “She was lucid, talking, even making jokes. They advised her to see a doctor, and she refused.”

Brought to her room at the Quintessence Hotel about an hour later, “she was walking,” says Lacasse. “She didn’t have any signs of impact. Then just all of a sudden, she started to suffer headaches, and the instructor said, ‘Okay, you better go to the hospital,’ and she agreed.”

Transported to Centre Hospitalier Laurentien near the winter resort, Richardson’s condition worsened, and she was then brought to Hopital du Sacre-Coeur de Montréal. By then a distraught Neeson, who had been filming the drama Chloe in Toronto, was with his wife. And in Hollywood friends prayed for a miracle. Shocked by the news, Nick Moore—who directed Richardson in the 2008 film Wild Child, in England—said, “Whenever she was needed, she’d go straight home to Liam and the kids.”

In 2000 it was Richardson who cared for Neeson after a near-death motorcycle accident that broke his pelvis. “It was a terrible time,” Richardson said of the incident. A shaken Neeson gave up riding motorcycles for good. “You have one life to live,” he told PEOPLE in ’04, “and you have to look after yourself.”

In the years since, when they’re not working, the pair has led a quiet life, splitting their time between their Manhattan apartment and a country house in Upstate New York, where they like to hole up for date nights. “We just like to curl up and we have a big screen that we watch a movie on together at home with cheese, a little wine,” Richardson told PEOPLE in February. The husky-voiced actress is also famed for whipping up dinner parties for such pals as Meryl Streep and Ralph Fiennes. (She recently appeared as a judge on Top Chef.) “I love to cook,” Richardson told PEOPLE in 2003. “That’s my passion.”

She’s equally passionate about AIDS research, having lost her father, British director Tony Richardson, to the disease in 1991. (She and Joely, 44, also have a half-brother, Carlo Sparanero, 39.) “We had a wonderful relationship,” she told Britain’s Sunday Express in ’07 of her late dad, whose bisexuality was publicly discussed only after his death. “I accepted him for who he was. There never had to be any explanation.”

As a parent herself, Richardson made sure her career—which included films like 2002’s Maid in Manhattan—never kept her away from her boys for long; she and Neeson alternated their work schedules so one parent was always at home. “She talked a great deal about her kids,” says director Scott Ellis, who worked with Richardson and her mom in a charity performance of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music in January. “She was fierce as a mother and really took that role seriously.” As Richardson put it, “It takes a lot of hard work,” she told PEOPLE in ’98, “and a lot of love.”

She also nurtures a tight bond with her Oscar-winning mother, Vanessa, 72. The pair recently costarred in the 2007 drama Evening and appeared together in Music. “Having the chance to work with your mother, who is an extraordinary actress, is a dream come true,” Richardson said.

Now plunged into a nightmare, her family must face the unimaginable: saying goodbye. No matter what, Richardson has her steadfast other half in her corner. “Liam is a great help to me and I help him because we understand and support one another,” she told Britain’s Sunday Express in ’07. “You have to ride the waves.”