The commanding officer of a 20-year-old U.S. Naval Academy midshipman from Queens killed in this week's Amtrak derailment called the cadet "a phenomenal young man," as hundreds of colleagues, loved ones and officials paid tribute to Justin Zemser with full military honors at his funeral.
Speaking outside the Boulevard-Riverside-Hewlett Chapel on Long Island, where funeral services for the Rockaway Beach native were held Friday, Capt. Brandy Soublet said Justin Zemser "just had this quiet strength about him."
Zemser, a second-year student and popular athlete at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, was traveling home to Rockaway Beach on leave when the train derailed Tuesday night, his mother told NBC 4 New York. He was an only child who went to high school in Queens, and many current and former students mourned the loss of the rising star Friday.
Aurora Perez, who was a freshman at Beach Channel High School when Zemser was a senior there, said the young man often returned to the school to speak to students. He inspired them, the 17-year-old said.
"He just told everyone to, you know, reach for the stars and never give up on your dreams," Perez said, adding that everyone looked up to him at the school, including the teachers.
"He was loving, caring," she said. "He put everyone before himself. ... He just cared about other people instead of his own life. If he could save anyone on that train, I know he would have."
Flags were lowered at the naval academy in Annapolis as nearly 200 of Zemser's fellow midshipmen, Jewish club members and football teammates descended on New York for his funeral.
He 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.
"He was the captain. He was the kid. He was basically like the face of Rockaway," said Frank Kalnberg, Zemser's football teammate at Beach Channel High School for three years. "He's basically what you want your kid to be if you're a parent: 2200 on his SATs, Naval Academy. He was probably coming home to see his mom."
His mother told reporters Wednesday that Zemser was "wonderful, absolutely wonderful. Everybody looked up to my son."
The football team dedicated a Facebook post to Zemser's mother Thursday, calling her the team's biggest supporter and "Justin's #1 fan."
"We know he was an only child, but I assure you that Justin had 64 brothers," the post said. "These past two days of grieving have been filled with many tears, but more importantly, they've been filled with a dialogue of Justin's impact on each and every one of us."
In New York, Zemser interned for Republican Councilman Eric Ulrich, District 32, who called him "truly a bright, talented and patriotic young man" in a statement Wednesday.
Zemser also volunteered with a church program, a soup kitchen and a nursing home and mentored children with autism, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said. Schumer and U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks nominated Zemser to the Naval Academy, and Meeks was struck by his "high character, intellectual curiosity, and maturity beyond his years."
The NTSB said the Amtrak train, with 238 passengers and five crew members on board, was going at a speed of more than 100 mph when it overturned, leaving riders to scramble through shattered windows of toppled cars in their desperate efforts to escape the twisted piles of metal.
Five other people with ties to New York and New Jersey have been confirmed among the dead. They include Jim Gaines, an Associated Press staffer on his way back to New Jersey, Rachel Jacobs, a Philadelphia CEO who lived in Manhattan with her husband and children, Abid Gilani, a Wells Fargo executive, Dr. Derrick Griffith, a CUNY dean who had just gotten his doctorate degree, and Laura Finamore, a managing director at Cushman & Wakefield.
The last two victims were identified Thursday as Bob Gildersleeve, the Baltimore, Maryland, father who had been missing since the derailment, according to his employer, and Giuseppe Piras, an Italian whose identity was confirmed by Claudio Bisogniero, Ambassador of Italy to the United States.