Jewish midshipman and tech CEO confirmed dead in Amtrak crash

Rachel Jacobs, with her husband and child.  Photo credit: JTA
Rachel Jacobs, who was killed when an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, is pictured with her husband and child.
Photo credit: JTA

A New York-bound Amtrak train originating in Washington, D.C. derailed Tuesday night in Philadelphia, killing at least eight and injuring more than 200 people, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said.

Northeast Regional Train 188 was traveling at 106 mph as it entered the sharp curve, where the speed limit is 50 mph, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Among those reported dead are a Jewish midshipman from the United States Naval Academy and the Jewish CEO of a Philadelphia tech company.

Midshipman Justin Zemser, 20, from Far Rockaway, N.Y., was one of several people killed when Train 188 jumped the tracks northeast of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, according to reports.

Related: Navy Midshipman Killed in Derailment Was Dedicated Jew, Student

Rachel Jacobs, 39, a Detroit area native, was reported dead by CNN late Wednesday night. She was recently hired as CEO of Philadelphia-based online education startup, ApprenNet. Jacobs 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.

Zemser’s family issued a statement Tuesday afternoon which was posted to the Yeshiva World News.

“He was his high school’s valedictorian and was just finishing his second year as midshipman at the United States Naval Academy,” the statement said. “He was a loving son, nephew and cousin, who was very community minded. This tragedy has shocked us in the worst way and we wish to spend this time grieving with our close family and friends. At this time we ask for privacy from the media.”

Jacobs’ family issued a statement to the media late Wednesday night.

“This is an unthinkable tragedy. Rachel was a wonderful mother, daughter, sister, wife and friend,” the statement said.

Many Washington-area Jews ride Amtrak along the Northeast Corridor. One of them 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 on Monday night.

“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.”

Rabbi Levi Haskelevich, director of the Lubavitch House at University of Pennsylvania, was at home when the incident occurred and rushed to Temple University hospital, where many of the injured were taken. He met with victims in the emergency room and consoled family members waiting in a building across the street.

“I spoke to everybody and checked in with them. It happened to be that some of them were Jewish and they were very appreciative that somebody came down and checked in,” Haskelevich said.

One of his students was on the train, but escaped without injuries.

“It’s a train we all take, Philadelphians to New York, many of us take [it]. So it hit very close to home,” added Haskelevich.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, CEO of disability rights organization RespectabilityUSA, said that she tried to take the train from Washington to New York on Wednesday morning, but only got as far as Philadelphia when Amtrak suspended service between Philadelphia and New York. Mizrahi had to go to the Philadelphia International Airport and fly the rest of the way. The flight cost her an extra $600, but she said she feels lucky that she wasn’t on the train that crashed.

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 is retiring in several days, is 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 I’m sure statistically it’s more dangerous to cross the street in Rockville than it is to take a train,” he said.

A Positive Train Control safety system would have prevented the crash, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt, who is leading the investigation, told The New York Times. Positive Train Control, or PTC, automatically slows or stops trains to prevent high-speed derailments. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandates installation of the technology by the end of the year, but the railroad industry is seeking an extension. Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday also voted down a Democratic amendment to increase by $825 million for the adoption of Positive Train Control technology.

Amtrak has set up an incident hotline for those who believe their friends or family may have been on regional train 188. That number is 800-523-9101.

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