It has been almost four decades since Renee Katz narrowly survived after being pushed onto the subway tracks by a crazed stranger and run over by a passing E train.
The 17-year-old flutist from Flushing was on her way to a remarkable music career, but she suddenly found herself trapped in notoriety as a result of media fervor.
Now, Katz is reinvigorating her career in music, not as flutist, but as a vocalist in her own cabaret show organized to tell her story of anguish and persistence. At “Don’t Tell Mama,” just steps from Times Square, on June 25, the Flushing resident illustrated her experiences bookended by classic jazz standards.
“On June 7, 1979, and at 8:14 a.m., some crazed person threw me into an oncoming E train,” Katz said between songs. “I miraculously rolled to the left, saving myself except for my hand, which was severed by the train.”
Decades after the crime, which derailed her life and set her up for a whole different career in between, Katz still holds the audience with an outstanding voice, storytelling ability and the fact that she can still play the piano.
Katz was getting ready to graduate from the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art when the accident occurred in a Manhattan station. She had recently been accepted into New England Conservatory of Music. The media covered the incident thoroughly, chronicling the all-night surgery to re-attach her arm, the progress of her recovery and her later marriage to one of the doctors who performed the operation.
Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five produced “The Message,” which the Rolling Stone called greatest hip-hop song of all time. The lyrics describe the crime and violence in the city during the 1970s and includes a verse about the train incident, which left Katz physically maimed.
Famous New York City columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote that a cop making a run for some ice helped preserve the severed limb so doctors could succeed in sewing it back on.
“I had become an instant celebrity, but not in the way I had dreamed of,” Katz said, later explaining letters from New Yorkers began to accumulate, which she pinned to the walls of her hospital room. One student from Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village wrote to her that his class had discussed the crime, and expressed the desire to make the world a better place after hearing her story.
The man who pushed her was never arrested due to lack of evidence.
Katz said the fact the story seemed to instill change in people, from students to convicts, gave her a new direction in life. She set her priorities on becoming an occupational therapist in order to help others overcome injuries and disabilities. But music would always remain in her life.
“I decided to focus not on what I lost, but what I was lucky enough to keep,” Katz said. “And I decided to focus on my voice — my salvation — and I feel really blessed that I can sing.”
According to Katz, there was no time to grieve following the incident. Her new career and celebrity status would put her at the forefront of charity events for medical research and rehabilitation programs as well as a close working relationship with former New York Sen. Jacob Javits.
Katz, the daughter of Romanian immigrants and Holocaust survivors, later married her second husband, Barry Packer, with whom she shares a home in Flushing.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall