On the afternoon of Labor Day 2016, Jacksonville State University freshman Katie Beth Carter and her younger sister Kimi were driving to Chattanooga, Tenn., blasting Taylor Swift’s “Long Live” and singing at the tops of their lungs. The closing track from Swift’s 2010 album, Speak Now, was Katie Beth’s favorite. Less than six hours later, the 18-year-old member of the JSU Marching Ballerinas dance line was driving alone back to campus when her Honda Accord collided with an 18-wheeler. She was pronounced dead at 6 p.m.
For Kimi, 16, Swift’s music provided strength in a time of unspeakable pain. But even she was shocked when, at Katie Beth’s visitation, a friend thrust his phone in front of her: On a GoFundMe page set up to honor her sister and help cover funeral costs, Swift had donated $5,000 and left a note that read, “Kimi, no words can express how sorry I am for your loss. I know that you will keep Katie’s memory alive. Please know how much I am thinking of you and I’m saying a prayer for your family. All My Love, Taylor.”
“Somehow, Taylor Swift reached out to me exactly when I needed it the most,” says Kimi, sitting with her father Jason and mother Amy in the living room of their home in Ringgold, Ga. An aspiring singer-songwriter who began teaching herself guitar and writing songs in the fourth grade after her grandmother took her to her first Swift concert, Kimi recalls the power of that moment. “I felt more at peace. Katie was up there, pulling strings for me, trying to make this a little easier to get through.”
Some of Swift’s fans wrote about the tragedy on social media, which caught the star’s attention. Swift found the family’s GoFundMe page. “We’ve all learned to love Taylor’s music through the years,” says Amy Carter. “Our daughter was known as ‘Kind Katie.’ And with a small gesture to a family she had never met, Taylor Swift demonstrated that same kindness. It’s the act of reaching out to someone in their darkest hour and saying, ‘I’m thinking of you.’ There’s so much power in a random act of kindness.” (This year alone, Swift has given more than $1 million to causes ranging from flood victims in Louisiana to wildlife in Africa. She declined further comment.)
In the Carter family’s living room, there are photos of Katie Beth on the mantle: her high school senior portrait in which she strikes a dancer’s pose in a river; a glamorous dance squad shot from her first JSU football home game; and what would turn out to be the last photo she would pose for, a selfie of Katie Beth and her siblings snapped just before she left the house to drive back to school on the afternoon of Sept. 5.
“I want to remember the way she was on that last Thursday night, when she got to dance in the first home football game of the season,” says Amy. “She was radiating this confidence and joy. That’s how I want to remember her life.”
As for Kimi, just a week after Katie Beth’s death, she quietly celebrated her own 16th birthday. Her best friend gave her a bracelet in the shape of sound waves from Swift’s “Long Live.” “As I was opening it, she said, ‘It isn’t much,’ ” recalls Kimi. “When I saw what it was, I just started crying. I told her, ‘It isn’t much? It’s everything to me.’ ”
Scholarships have been established in Katie Beth Carter’s memory at both JSU and Heritage High School in Ringgold.