ROCKAWAY BEACH — A star Queens football player who was devoted to his community was killed Tuesday in the Amtrak train wreck in Pennsylvania, according to his family.
Justin Zemser, 20, was returning home to Rockaway Beach from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. when the train he was on derailed outside Philadelphia, killing him and at least six other passengers.
Zemser played for the Naval Academy's football team and had just finished his second year as a midshipman.
He was also valedictorian of his high school class at Channel View School for Research in Rockaway Park, which he graduated from in 2013, his distraught parents told reporters Wednesday.
"He was wonderful," his mother, Susan Zemser said. "He was absolutely wonderful. Everybody looked up to my son — there's just no other words I can say."
The Zemsers were waiting last night for their only son to come home for summer break, she said, when she found out an Amtrak train had derailed.
"I kept on calling the hospitals for nothing," she said. "And we got the call this morning."
Zemser was a loving son devoted to his community, his mother said.
At Channel View, he was president of the student government, interned with local politicians and played wide receiver on the sprint football team, according to the school's assistant principal, Joseph Featherson.
He was also the valedictorian of his eighth grade class at Channel View, which includes middle and high school.
"Justin was our shining star — is our shining star," Featherson said.
In his junior and senior years he volunteered to coach a football team for the St. Camillus Special Olympics program in Rockaway Beach, according to Featherson, who runs the entire program.
Last fall, members of the Special Olympics traveled to Maryland over Columbus Day weekend to watch Zemser and the Navy Midshipmen spring football team "handily" defeat their opponent, Featherson said.
"He talked to the kids about how he remembered tossing touchdowns to them," he said. "It was a wonderful experience for all of us, and him."
Zemser's former principal, Patricia Tubridy, retired in February and was in North Carolina when she heard he died in the derailment.
"Justin was a nice kid, who was always giving a lot," she said. "He thought of other people. He was authentic with people, he really cared."
She drove back up to New York, arriving at 4 a.m. Thursday morning to go to Channel View — where a memorial to the former student, known as "Z Man," grew on a fence outside the field where his high school team, the Dolphins, played.
Despite most of the team members being displaced from their homes, Zemser and the players refused to concede to their opponents, Port Richmond High School.
They ended up losing the game, but the seniors felt it was important that they still played, according to a report.
“I wouldn’t have been able to live with that feeling of ‘what if?’ At least now I know we had a shot at it," Zemser told Chalkbeat in November 2012.
"Now we gotta fix this town up."