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Navy midshipman who died in train derailment aspired to be a SEAL

Justin Zemser, who died in the train derailment in Philadelphia, was a sophomore at the Naval Academy

When Justin Zemser had his bar mitzvah at age 13, he told his family he wanted to attend the Naval Academy and become a Navy SEAL, his uncle Richard Zemser said Wednesday.

The odds of anyone achieving those two goals are long, but Zemser was well on his way by the time he died in Tuesday’s Amtrak crash.

He was valedictorian of his high school class, a 20-year-old sophomore at the Naval Academy and learning to become a scuba diver.

“Not only was he valedictorian, but he was also the president of his class. He was the captain of the football team,” Zemser said in a phone interview, recalling his nephew’s high school success. “He was a mentor to many of the students to help them succeed. This is just part of what he did.”

Richard said his nephew was a lover of learning who was not afraid to push boundaries. Although he excelled as an engineering major, he petitioned the Naval Academy to let him become an English major, an unusual choice that he felt passionate about, his uncle said.

What did he want for his birthday or holidays? Books, said his uncle.

The sophomore overflowed with curiosity -- about religion, history and literature. A recent speech at the academy by New York Times columnist David Brooks prompted him to request more books, Richard Zemser recalled.

While at home in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., he worked as a lifeguard. At the Naval Academy, he played wide receiver on a varsity-level football team for students who weighed less than 172 pounds.

He was also a cherished only child to his parents, Howard and Susan Zemser.

“They took my son very young and it’s heartbreaking,” Susan Zemser said in a telephone call Wednesday before excusing herself to mourn.

Uncle Richard said Justin had just been home a few days ago for Mother’s Day, taking the same train route back to Maryland on Sunday night for a brief return to school.

He was on his way home to New York on Tuesday when he died in the crash.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, in a speech Wednesday, said that “the Navy family is struggling with this,” and called the midshipman “a crucial member of this institution.”

On Wednesday, family members were recalling roller-coaster rides at Coney Island and other fun memories. They were also lamenting the lost potential.

“I would say to Justin, ‘I hope I live long enough to see you become the first Jewish American president,’ and we would laugh about it,” Richard Zemser said. “The more I thought about it, I meant it. This was a kid who was destined for phenomenal things.” 

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