Marya Columbia was awakened by her husband just before 9 a.m. on that indelible September morning 18 years ago. He had been startled by a clangorous noise that he later likened to the sound of an aluminum bat striking a lamppost. He sprinted to the window of their TriBeCa apartment and saw smoke billowing from somewhere in Lower Manhattan.
The couple arrived on the roof just in time to hear another metallic crack as a plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Soon they were staring agape as the South Tower crumbled into a cloud of rubble.
Like many New Yorkers, Ms. Columbia felt compelled to respond to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — to do something, to help someone. What she, a violinist, had to offer was music. For her, “nothing else makes sense” other than being a musician, she once told a niece, Carolyn Lester.
So Ms. Columbia did not hesitate when a fellow violinist recruited her for a string quartet to play for rescue workers at St. Paul’s Chapel, which had become an informal respite station where they could nap, grab a bite, wash up or get a massage. The chapel was two blocks from where the towers had stood, and having survived the Great Fire of 1776, it had also, miraculously, come out intact again.
The quartet, called the Music Givers, was among musical groups that for nine months performed seven days a week at the chapel. The quartet performed three times a day (she played on Monday mornings), and, like the other groups, the musicians played without masks or other protection from the dust and noxious fumes.
In mid-2018, Ms. Columbia developed a persistent cold. X-rays disclosed a tumor in her lung. Ms. Columbia’s smoking habit may well have contributed to her disease, but doctors suggested that the lung tumor, which metastasized to her brain, also may have been related to toxins she inhaled near the World Trade Center site. Aching ribs that she had attributed to a cough turned out to have resulted from the splintering of bone, caused by tumors in her marrow.
The tumor might have been detected earlier, doctors told her, but she had lacked health insurance and had skipped regular checkups.
After the diagnosis, she applied for free care as a responder under the World Trade Center Health Program. But perhaps because of a misunderstanding, a representative of the program told Ms. Columbia’s husband that “musicians don’t count” as responders, Ms. Lester said. Instead, Ms. Columbia was told to reapply as a survivor. She qualified in that category because she lived downtown.
But Ms. Columbia sought on principal to be classified as she had been on her original application. After all, she and the other musicians had responded in the best way they knew how. With the help of patient advocates, she was finally identified as a responder and admitted to the health program last month, just in time to qualify for home hospice coverage.
She died on Oct. 23 at her home in Yonkers, N.Y. She was 63. The cause was lung cancer, according to Ms. Lester, who chronicled her aunt’s travails last year in The New Yorker.
“She was quite possibly the first musician to qualify as a responder,” said Lydia Leon of the World Trade Center Health Registry, a research group established by the city and federal governments.
Marya Ursula Columbia was born on April 22, 1956, in Greeley, Colo., while her mother, Tsuneko Tokuyasu, was visiting there from New York. Ms. Tokuyasu was a lawyer, and later a judge, who has been described by the Brooklyn Public Library as the perhaps the first Japanese woman admitted to the bar in New York. Her own mother had been interned in California during World War II. Ms. Columbia’s father, Francis Columbia, was a lawyer, too.
The family moved from Brooklyn Heights to the South Bronx when she was 7. She attended the Bronx High School of Science, transferred to the North Carolina School of the Arts for her senior year, and earned a bachelor’s degree in performance from the Mannes College of Music, now the Mannes School of Music at the New School in Manhattan.
Ms. Columbia worked as a freelance violinist; toured with the New York City Opera as a principal second violinist; performed with musicians accompanying Josh Groban; played with a community orchestra in Merida, Venezuela; and performed with a string quartet of buskers on the corner of West Broadway and Spring Street in SoHo, where, she told The New York Times in 1984, Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” were among the biggest moneymakers.
In 1989, she married Ronald Leo Fletcher, a luthier. He survives her along with two sisters, Susanne and Anne; and two brothers, Francis and Thomas. Another brother, Bobby, died earlier.
Not long after 9/11, the couple moved to Yonkers following a yearslong dispute with their landlord and a round of Housing Court hearings.
Nearly three-quarters of the almost 100,000 people enrolled in the federally funded World Trade Center Health Program were rescue workers and other responders. The rest are described as survivors.
“You know, we always felt, it’s so insignificant, what we do,” Ms. Columbia told The New Yorker. “But then we realized it is significant to these people to have a moment’s rest.”
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