Richard Zemser, the uncle of United States Naval Academy midshipman Justin Zemser, couldn’t say enough good things about his nephew.
“He did more things in his young 20 years than anybody can imagine,” his uncle said Thursday afternoon. He was taking a break from writing what he would say the next day at Justin’s funeral.
The 20-year-old was one of eight people killed when Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 derailed the night of May 12 in Philadelphia. Rachel Jacobs, a Detroit-area native who was recently hired as CEO of Philadelphia-based online education startup ApprenNet, was also among those killed. The Jewish woman lived with her husband and 2-year-old son on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The 1997 graduate of Swarthmore College also had a Columbia Business School MBA.
Justin Zemser was co-captain of his high school football team, class president and valedictorian at Channel View School for Research in Rockaway Park. At the Naval Academy, he was involved in the Jewish Midshipmen Club, and on deck to possibly be its next president, his uncle said. He was also set to mentor incoming freshmen. His eyes were set on becoming a Navy SEAL.
“The bottom line is he was looking for what he can do to make the world a better place,” Richard said. “No question. That’s why he was in the academy, that’s why he wanted to serve his country.”
He recalls his nephew’s bar mitzvah at Congregation Derech Emunoh, where several other members of the family had their b’nai mitzvahs. The synagogue’s main building had burned down in an accident, and Zemser was bar mitzvahed in a portable trailer, the congregation’s first bar mitzvah in several years. Although membership was low, if they knew Justin was coming in for a Shabbat service, phone calls would be made to make sure there was a minyan, Richard said.
Justin later became active in another synagogue he attended with his father, Howard.
“Because he was a Levite, occasionally he would get an aliyah,” Richard said. “They would always call him up for something.”
At the time of Justin’s death, he was headed home for about a week. He had been home for Mother’s Day the previous weekend. He and his uncle had been emailing back and forth about a paper Justin wrote for his final exam in a class that examined the Bible.
“For 20 years old, you can tell that this was a really bright fellow,” Richard said on the essay Justin wrote. “If I could choose another son, it would be someone like Justin. He was a wonderful kid.”
Jacobs’ family released a statement to the media a day after the accident.
“This is an unthinkable tragedy,” the statement said. “Rachel was a wonderful mother, daughter, sister, wife and friend.”
Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor has been a backbone of transportation between New York and Washington for decades. Among commuters who frequently ride those rails is William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, who was on an Amtrak train heading back to Washington from New York the night before the derailment.
“As I was hearing the news and watching the news on TV I could very much picture the bodies being thrown around and the laptops flying through the air and the sense of panic,” said Daroff. “I can just imagine how unprepared any of us are for that to occur.”
Samantha Silver, a Washington-based journalist from Baltimore, takes the MARC train to Union Station on a weekly basis.
“I was flabbergasted,” Silver said upon hearing about the accident. “I took the 6:20 p.m. train last night so I probably just missed [Train 188].”
Ed Grinspan, a Philadelphia native and Baltimore business owner, has commuted between the two cities for 36 years. He’s never given the safety of trains a second thought, but said seatbelts should be given serious consideration. Despite the incident, Grinspan, who was retiring in several days, was still grateful to Amtrak for making it possible to live in Philadelphia and work in Baltimore.
“I’m a satisfied customer,” he said.
Weldon Spurling, a medical student who recently began commuting daily from Washington to Baltimore, sees taking the train as relatively safe compared to other activities.
“Whatever hysteria is being brought up by this train accident or any other type of accident with mass transit, I would suggest that [instead you] consider your lifestyle, what you do, what you eat, what you smoke, what you drink,” he said. “Worrying about riding on a train or flying in a plane is the least of your concerns.”
Silver shares his sentiment.
“You take risks in life,” said Silver. “There is nothing any of those people could have done.”
For Silver, taking the train isn’t the scary part. What worries her is the idea that a meeting was scheduled to take place only hours after the derailment to decide if Amtrak should receive a $252 million budget cut. The Obama administration has called for boosting Amtrak funding to $2.45 billion and on Wednesday Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee blocked a bid by Democrats to increase Amtrak’s budget by more than $1 billion, including $556 million targeted for the Northeast Corridor. The Appropriations Committee voted 30-21 along party lines to slash Amtrak’s funding.
“It is deeply troubling that my Republican colleagues defeated an amendment to fully fund Amtrak just hours after this tragic rail crash,” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said. The top Democrat on the Appropriations panel added that “starving rail of funding will not enable safer train travel.”
Daroff said while he will be more cognizant of safety factors, he will be boarding an Amtrak train again soon.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “I’m sure statistically it’s more dangerous to cross the street in [suburban Washington] than it is to take a train.”
Marc Shapiro, Justin Katz, Josh Marks and Melissa Gerr write for the Washington Jewish Week and Baltimore Jewish Times. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.