Midshipman who died in derailment a ‘bright, talented and patriotic young man’

WASHINGTON —A midshipman from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, is among the seven people who died when an Amtrak train derailed on Tuesday night in Philadelphia.

Justin Zemser, a popular student leader and athlete, was on a break from the U.S. Naval Academy and heading home to Rockaway Beach, New York, where playing high school football helped him and his teammates through the devastation of Superstorm Sandy.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus called Zemser a “crucial member” of the institution.

The 20-year-old’s family released a statement mourning “a loving son, nephew and cousin who was very community-minded.” They said the tragedy “has shocked us all in the worst way.”

Zemser was in his second year.

The community is saddened by Zemser’s death, says Beth Levitt, a co-owner of Chick & Ruth’s Delly — a popular hangout for midshipmen.

“We’ve had midshipmen in our restaurant all day and they are all down,” Levitt says. “This would be a happy time right before graduation and everyone is moving on and going home and this had to happen and they’re devastated.”

Zemser served as vice president of the Jewish Midshipmen Club, according to the club’s website, and played wide receiver on the academy’s sprint football team.

At Channel View School for Research, Zemser was valedictorian, student government president and captain of the football team.

Sandy shuttered the school building for two months and temporarily forced Zemser’s family to relocate, but he and his teammates salvaged their season, returning to the field for a final game in Staten Island two weeks after the storm.

Zemser mentored younger students and interned for New York City Councilman Eric Ulrich, who called him “truly a bright, talented and patriotic young man” in a statement Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks nominated Zemser to the academy, extolling his combination of academic achievements, athletic prowess and commitment to his country and community.

“He was an outstanding young man whose high character, intellectual curiosity, and maturity beyond his years inspired confidence in what he and his generation are destined to achieve,” Meeks said in a statement Wednesday.

Another victim of the derailment was Jim Gaines, an Associated Press video software architect  The others have not yet been publicly identified.


WTOP’s MIchelle Basch and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Abigail Constantino

Abigail Constantino started her journalism career writing for a local newspaper in Fairfax County, Virginia. She is a graduate of American University and The George Washington University.

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