FOX 8 Exclusive: Survivor of Rault Center fire speaks, 40 years - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

FOX 8 Exclusive: Survivor of Rault Center fire speaks, 40 years later

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Fire survivor Natalie Smith Fire survivor Natalie Smith

Next month will mark the 40th anniversary of the Rault Center fire. New Orleanians watched on live TV as five women jumped out of the burning downtown building -- only one of them survived.

November 29, 1972 is a day many New Orleanians will never forget.  Flames tore through the Rault Center in downtown New Orleans, a building made up of apartments and offices. On the 15th floor was a beauty salon where five women were trapped inside.

People watched in horror as the women hung out of one of the windows, looking for an escape. Finally, one by one, they jumped onto the roof of a neighboring building, eight stories below.

Natalie Smith, now 79, survived the fire and the fall.

"I was going down head first but when I turned over, this camera didn't see it, but I landed on my feet," Smith said.

"I remember getting on my knees and calling out to Jesus and said Jesus if you can hear me, please take care of me because Roy and the kids need me," Smith commented.

In 1972, Smith was married to the love of her life, Roy Smith. She was also a mother to four kids under the age of 17. 

Smith went to the salon that day to get her hair done, never thinking she might not make it out alive.

She explained, "I had a standing appointment Wednesday and because my husband was a paraplegic and I took care of him, that was my one day out."

As the fire started, Smith was getting ready to leave the salon but she was supposed to have been gone already. That morning, she gave up her earlier appointment to another customer, a woman who was trying to get her hair done on her lunch break from work.

Smith explained, "This one particular lady, I don't even know who she is, was going to be late so I let her take my place. She got out the building. I didn't."

So after waiting and then getting her hair done, Smith was ready to leave. She headed towards the door but then she and the other ladies saw the flames.

"I opened the door and the fire was coming down. I thought we could crawl to the exit but with the fire coming down, it would've burned us so I shut the door," Smith said.

The five ladies trapped inside included Smith, the salon owner, one employee and two other customers. They needed to think quickly. Smith explains, "We took one of the chairs and busted out a window."

Natalie Smith doesn't remember much beyond this point. TV footage captured the women jumping. Smith has never seen the footage, afraid that viewing it will trigger painful memories.

One of the salon employees, Wilma, survived the fall but died about a month later. The other three died on impact. Smith lay in a coma for months, until the day in 1973 when she says her son helped her to wake up.

"My oldest son, when he gets nervous, he talks constantly and fast," said Smith.  "And he was this close to my face and I say... I woke at the time and I said 'Marcelle, shut up!'"

Smith woke with her humor still intact and to find herself in a body cast -- most of her bones were broken in the fall. "My pelvis was broken in three spots. I broke my back, ribs, collarbone and my teeth had been capped," Smith said.

Surprisingly, there was no damage to any of the jewelry Smith wore, despite the eight-story fall. "No scratch, no dent, no nothing."

For months Smith lay in her bed, relying on the kindness of neighbors and her kids to help take care of her and her husband Roy who was confined to a wheelchair.

When asked if she regrets going to the Rault Center the day of the fire, Smith simply responded, "No. You know, God has a plan for your life."

It's God that Smith credits with saving her life that day, not only physically but spiritually as well. "The main good is that I found Jesus as my Lord and Savior. The good is the help that I can give other people, the hope and faith I can give them," Smith said.

After the accident, Smith and her husband started a ministry, helping kids who were behind bars for getting into trouble with the law. She told the kids about her accident and how she found the strength to rebuild her life.

A volunteer relayed a story to her once.  She told us, "One of the children said to her he never believed in miracles and after I spoke he went to her and said now I've seen a miracle. Now I believe in miracles."

Smith hopes she inspired the kids to turn their lives around. She says her own life certainly changed after the accident.

But moving on isn't always so easy.  40 years later, it's hard for Smith to think about the fire, and going to the old Rault Center is out of the question. Although it's just a shell of a building now, the memories are still too painful.

"Life stops there and then it starts here. So that in between I don't even think about and I don't think about the fact that I wouldn't be here or anything like that," Smith told us.

The Rault Center fire was a terrible tragedy, but some good did come out of it. Lawmakers required all high-rise buildings to install sprinkler systems after the fire. "I think it's great. It makes me secure," Smith commented.

Authorities still aren't sure to this day what caused the blaze. But to Natalie Smith, finding out how and why isn't so important. She's focused on living her life to the fullest, and cherishing every day she has as if it were her last.

Since surviving the fire Smith has been able to see her kids grow up and get married and has enjoyed being there for the birth of her six grandchildren.

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