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Homeless woman killed by R train

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As a homeless woman who slept nightly in the city’s subway tunnels, April Smith often went unnoticed by passersby. But last week on March 7 just after 11 p.m. at the Continental Avenue subway station in Forest Hills, people began to wonder who she was.

Smith was killed by an R train after she fell onto the tracks, the police reported. Witnesses told police she had been teetering by the side of the platform when she fell and was unable to pull herself back to safety.

While her identity was often obscured in that easily self-dissolving word “homeless” and in the layers of clothes she bundled onto her body, at one place in the city April was known as a woman of great generosity and smarts.

“She was a very intelligent woman,” said Barbara Gabriel, office manager at the Coalition for the Homeless in downtown Manhattan, who beamed when asked to describe Smith.

On the first of each month, Smith made her way to 89 Chambers St., up a rickety elevator -- manned by an operator with a hand crank — which brought her to the third floor where she collected her Social Security check.

There at the coalition staff remember her as a woman always quick to dispense rose hip vitamin C tablets or offer home-remedy medical advice.

Smith, 36, was a tall, sturdy woman, with a pale brown complexion, who had inherited her grandfather’s sparkling Portuguese eyes, said her mother, Frances Smith.

She also had a taste for fine clothes and reading, remnants of an earlier life before subway tunnels, dope and city services became a part of it.

Born in Brooklyn’s Wykoff Hospital, Smith grew up in Bayside on Oceania Street with her parents and younger brother Eric.

At the corner of 47th Street in the family’s home, she practiced scales on the piano, pirouetted, and plied the moves she learned in ballet class. Smith’s mother said that with April’s height she often stooped to hide her stature. The classes, she had hoped, would teach her to stand tall.

“She was the sweetest little girl,” her mother said, recalling the child who confided to an aunt that she thought herself ugly.

But her teen years were difficult. While attending MS 158 the girl “started deteriorat­ing,” her mother said. “She fell in with a bad group and got involved with dope.” Frances Smith also suspected that she had been sexually abused, though her daughter never discussed it explicitly.

After that came the drugs, methadone programs, six children — all of whom were taken from her either into adoption or foster care — and a husband, David Wells, who is currently serving time in Rikers Island for drug offenses, Frances Smith said.

For much of the time, what April Smith called home was the 179th Street and Hillside Avenue subway station.

“She slept in the tunnels a lot,” said Diane Spencer, an administrator with the Coalition for the Homeless, who often saw Smith as she passed through on her daily commute to work.

“I saw quite a few of our clients at that station,” Spencer said, adding that the homeless often prefer subways to the city’s shelters because they feel safer.

On the night of the accident, witnesses on the platform told police they saw her slip onto the tracks, but apparently she was too far for them to reach her in time, said Spencer.

A funeral, arranged by the coalition, was scheduled for Wednesday at Crestwood Memorial Chapel at 33 Spring St., in Manhattan. Services were to begin at 10 a.m.

“I can’t totally mourn her,” her mother said. “She’s up there with God and Jesus Christ and her aunts and uncles. I feel that.”

Reach reporter Jennifer Warren by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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