On a beautiful summer morning in 1983 two Amtrak trains, one traveling northbound, the other south, were accidentally routed onto the same track just north of Penn Station. Shortly before 9am they collided on the Hell’s Gate bridge some 80 feet over the streets of Queens. I was sitting in my seat waiting for my (to use Nicholson Baker’s charming phrase) now-wife to return from the dining car with some napkins when the impact occurred.
In the 10 or 12 minutes that it took Jessica and I to find each other the sky overhead filled with police and news helicopters and the surrounding rooftops began teeming with TV crews and photographers.
What had happened was just starting to dawn on us when we witnessed a sight that I will remember as long as I live. Into the bright air on both sides of the wrecked trains massive fire-ladders began rising swiftly and silently. New York City Fire and Rescue personnel streamed off the ladders by the dozen, carrying back-boards, oxygen tanks, fire axes and jaws-of-life. While the most seriously injured passengers were treated at the scene the rest of us were escorted a hundred or so yards back to the bridge embankment. There we saw that still more FDNY personnel had brought in a truckload of lumber and BUILT A STAIRCASE through the trees and brush down to the street. One at a time, a fireman led each passenger down this improvised stairway. At street level we were taken to a machine shop that had been turned into a fully staffed field hospital.
I have wondered many times since September 11 how many of the men and women who touched our lives that day have been taken from us. And I have thought long and hard about those left behind, who will live always with the experience of incalculable loss. We owe all of them the very best of what we have to give because that is what they offer to us.
It is good, indeed necessary, for all of us as artists to be thoughtful about what we do and even, at times, to question our ‘relevance’. But we must never let that questioning lead us into silence. Because out in the big world there are women and men who do not for a split-second, in the face of the unimaginable, question the relevance of anyone. They embody the single most awesome dimension of a free society: a social contract that says when you are in the blink of an eye rendered helpless and injured there are people who will walk through fire to be at your side.
This is the opposite of terrorism.
What is an American composer? One who loves America.