Justin Zemser, a 20-year-old Navy midshipman who was among those killed when an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, is being remembered by family and friends as a fine young man “gone away too soon.”
Zemser was on leave from the Naval Academy and en route to a visit with his family in Queens, New York, when Amtrak train 188 derailed, killing at least seven passengers and injuring more than 200. The train was traveling at a speed of more than 100 miles per hour as it went into a curve and jumped the tracks, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, sending its cars hurtling violently into the night, leaving some of them crumpled in a gnarled heap of steel. The train may have been traveling twice as fast as it should have been on that stretch of rail heading through Philadelphia.
“This tragedy has shocked us all in the worst way and we wish to spend this time grieving with our close family and friends,” Zemser’s mother, Susan Zemser told reporters on Wednesday, as the names of the dead and missing from the crash were slowly trickling out.
Flanked by family, the dead man’s mother described him as a loving son, nephew and cousin who was “very community-minded.”
The night before, Susan Zemser said she’d been waiting for Zemser to pull into New York at 10:30 p.m. When the train didn’t arrive she said she went online to see if her son’s train had been delayed. That’s when she learned of the derailment. But it wasn’t until Wednesday morning that she got the terrible news, in the form of a phone call, that her only child was among the dead.
“He was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful,” the grieving mother said, choking up. “Everybody looked up to my son and there are just no other words I could say.”
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter on Wednesday morning announced that the death toll had jumped from six to seven, after one of the train's passengers succumbed to his injuries, and that officials were busy trying to match passenger records from various Amtrak manifests with the rolls collected at local hospitals where injured passengers were taken. Nutter would not elaborate on how many people remain missing.
Zemser was one of two of the crash’s seven fatalities that had been identified by Wednesday afternoon. The second person to be identified was Jim Gaines, 48, a staff member at The Associated Press. Gaines was the father of two and was returning home to Plainsboro, New Jersey, when the train derailed, according to the AP.
Among those who were missing early on Wednesday was Rachel Jacobs, the CEO of a Philadelphia-based job-placement startup called ApprenNet.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he was "saddened" to hear of Zemser's death. "This is a painful day for that midshipman's family, for the entire academy community, and for all of those affected by this tragedy," Carter said.
Zemser was the valedictorian of his graduating class, with a 4.0 GPA, and he served as the president of the student government at Channel View High School in Rockaway, Queens, where he was a standout wide receiver on the school’s varsity football team.
A 2013 article published in the New York Daily News, which highlighted the tight bond Zemser shared with a group of four other standouts on the football team, described how Zemser and the others were also standouts off the field. Zemser and the others served as mentors for freshmen and sophomores as part of the Department of Education’s Expanded Success Initiative for black and Latino males.“They really support each other,” the school’s Principal Patricia Tubridy told the Daily News. “These are smart kids, and they get it. They will rise to the top.”
After graduating from high school, Zemser entered the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he joined the football team and where he also served as the vice president of the Jewish Midshipmen Club.
Susan Zemser's Facebook page is chock full of photos of Justin, some of him in the weight room with his teammates. In others Zemser is shown in his crisp white Navy uniform or his Navy football uniform. On Zemser’s birthday, March 25, his mother posted a birthday card: “We love you and very proud of you,” Susan Zemser wrote, “Have a Wonderful Day!!!! May you fulfill all your Dreams.”
In a statement, U.S. Naval Academy spokeswoman Jennifer Erickson said the Naval Academy was “deeply saddened” to report Zemser’s death and that Navy chaplains would be offering grief counseling to Zemser’s fellow midshipmen.
"The Naval Academy is supporting the midshipman's family, friends and loved ones during this time of grief,” Erickson said.
The sting of Zemser’s death extended beyond his family and extended Naval Academy family.
New York City Council Member Eric A. Ulrich, a Republican in Queens, said that Zemser had once been an intern in his office and described him as “a bright, talented and patriotic young man.”
"My deepest prayers and sympathy go out to his family and friends who are grieving during this very difficult time. He will be sorely missed by all who knew and loved him," Ulrich said.