NEW YORK — 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 south 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, Marya 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, Caroline 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. Her smoking habit may well have contributed to the 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, Lester said. Instead, Ms. Columbia was told to reapply as a survivor. She qualified in that category because she lived downtown.

But she sought on principle 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 Lester, who chronicled her aunt’s travails this 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.


A previous version of this obituary referred imprecisely to the sequence of events in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It also also misspelled the given name of the niece who wrote about Columbia for The New Yorker and misstated when her article was published.