Natasha Richardson: As her family held vigil, she slipped quietly away

Life support machine switched off three days after skiing accident in Canada

Family members confirmed late last night that Natasha Richardson, the luminous daughter of one of Britain's greatest theatrical dynasties, had died in a New York hospital three days after a skiing accident on the slopes of Quebec that had at first seemed like nothing more than a tumble.

A brief statement issued by the family spoke of the devastation felt after the 45-year-old star of stage and screen, and wife of the actor Liam Neeson, succumbed to what had been described in earlier, but unconfirmed, media reports as a severe head trauma that had quickly led to her becoming brain dead.

Richardson, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Sally Bowles in the 1998 revival of Cabaret in New York, was skiing with her two sons on Monday in the Mont Tremblant resort when she fell on a beginner's run. Though she at first seemed unhurt, she complained an hour later of a headache and was transferred to hospital. She was transferred to the Lenox Hill hospital in Manhattan on Tuesday.

By yesterday, her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, her sister, Joely Richardson, and Neeson were leading a vigil by her bedside as reports suggested that she was indeed in a coma from which there was no hope of return.

Lauren Bacall was also seen at the hospital. News websites were reporting in the afternoon that the actress had already been taken off life support and the end could not be far away.

Richardson was a beloved member of a family that had the theatre and acting in the marrow of its bones. Aside from her mother, she had Corin and Lynn Redgrave as her uncle and aunt while her grandfather was the beloved master of Shakespeare and celluloid romance, Sir Michael Redgrave.

It was a pedigree that she occasionally admitted complicated her own path to self-achievement in the art.

"The names Richardson or Redgrave didn't help," she told an interviewer in 2007. "But the last thing you want is to ride any coattails, because you don't want people to be accusing you of nepotism. You want to be able to learn and practice, and not to be thrown into a spotlight before you're ready for it."

The family statement put an end to what had already been more than 48 hours of excruciating public speculation about the fate of the actress, marked by a throng of cameras and reporters who had been camped out at the entrance to Lenox Hills on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She was flown from Montreal, where she had been receiving emergency treatment, on Tuesday.

"Liam Neeson, his sons, and the entire family are shocked and devastated by the tragic death of their beloved Natasha," the statement said. "They are profoundly grateful for the support, love and prayers of everyone, and ask for privacy during this very difficult time."

The pain for the family – for Liam, for their two boys, and for Vanessa – has only just began. It comes after Vanessa has barely finished appearing in the play The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion tracing the grief of a mother that comes with the loss of a daughter. She and Natasha, meanwhile, were preparing to work together on a revival of A Little Night Music on Broadway.

Even if she was already breathing the trade of the boards before, her commitment to the theatre became even greater after her marriage in 1994 to Neeson. Yet, it may also be true that she never quite attained the worldwide fame that she might have, not for any lack of talent but because she resisted taking mainstream Hollywood projects with the exception of Maid In Manhattan with Jennifer Lopez perhaps.

"You'll have to blame Ralph [Fiennes] for that one," she said once. "He's the most wonderful actor, a good friend; we thought we'd have a laugh." Otherwise she was often attracted to smaller, independent films.

In New York, both Richardson and Neeson had become highly popular regulars on the social and charity season, particular among some Irish-Americans. The actress also secured herself a special place in New York with her scintillating Sally Bowles. She also won wide praise on the Great White Way for performances in A Streetcar Named Desire and Closer.

Upon her fall on Monday she at first stood up, declared herself fit and returned to her hotel room. She was accompanied by a member of the resort's ski patrol, however, and was taken to hospital after admitting to a bad headache one hour later.

She had reportedly travelled to the resort on Sunday with her two boys to ski while Neeson worked on the set of his next film, Chloe, in Toronto. The couple live in New York city and have a country home in the Hudson Valley.

While there was no word from doctors last night to explain her injuries, it appeared she had suffered something close to what is sometimes called "Walk and Die Syndrome", where a head trauma appears at first to have little impact on a person but causes bleeding and brain swelling in the skull that can lead to death.

Although Richardson occasionally admitted to having had a difficult relationship with her mother as a child, in later years they became extremely close. "There's always something unexpected about her work, because she's sort of fearless," Richardson said recently. "When she hits it, then it sort of is just incandescent." She added: "She is a great mother."

Richardson was cast at the age of four by her father, Tony Richardson, as an extra in his film The Charge of the Light Brigade, but first gained serious recogntion for her performance in Anton Chekhov's The Seagull in a 1985 production in London that featured her mother and Jonathan Pryce. The performance earned her the London Drama Critics' most promising newcomer award. She was 22 at the time.

The statement confirming the death was issued by Alan Nierob, a spokesman for Neeson, who was on set in Toronto until the accident. She leaves behind two boys, Micheal and Daniel, aged 13 and 12. The boys, were reportedly also at her bedside yesterday.

Delay can be deadly: Head injuries

The normal rule in head injuries is that if there is no impaired consciousness at the time, there should be nothing to worry about. Natasha Richardson is the – desperately unlucky – exception. Even minor blows to the head can be lethal.

She had been skiing with an instructor on a "green" run, the easiest, when the accident happened. She was not wearing a helmet but there was no collision and it does not appear that any other skier was involved. She was reported to be laughing and joking after the accident, refused medical care and returned to her hotel room. Only later did she request help, an ambulance was called and she was taken to hospital.

Her condition has not been confirmed but it is likely she has suffered an extradural haematoma, a bleed in the brain that occurs when an artery is ruptured. The brain is like a blancmange inside the wooden box of the skull and a blow to the head can sever a blood vessel with relative ease.

Minor bleeds should resolve naturally but a major bleed creates a pool of blood between the meninges, the membranes that surround the brain, that presses on the brain causing a severe headache. Unless this pressure is relieved, it may lead to permanent brain damage, coma and death.

Neurologists routinely warn patients who come to hospital with head injuries that even though they appear unharmed – being fully conscious and walking around – they must return urgently if they get a headache, start vomiting or feel unwell over the next few hours.

Emergency treatment, which involves drilling a hole through the skull to drain the blood and relieve the pressure, is lifesaving and can prevent permanent damage. But it must be carried out quickly if it is to be effective. Delay can be deadly.

Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor