Dreams derailed

Emergency workers search for bodies inside a derailed Amtrak train in Philadelphia on May 13. Justin Zemser, bottom right, and Rachel Jacobs, top right, died in the derailment, Newscom
Emergency workers search for bodies inside a derailed Amtrak train in Philadelphia on May 13. Justin Zemser, bottom right, and Rachel Jacobs, top right, died in the derailment.

With mandated Federal Railroad Administration safety measures and rail improvements in place, Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor reopened Monday, just shy of one week after a deadly train derailment just north of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station claimed eight lives and injured more than 200 people.

Among the dead were two Jewish victims, Rachel Jacobs, 39, the Philadelphia-based CEO of online education firm ApprenNet, and Justin Zemser, 20, a New York-native and second-year midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Families of both victims held their funerals over the weekend.

The investigation into the disaster will take months, with investigators seeking an explanation as to why Northeast Regional Train 188 from Washington, D.C., to New York City was speeding along at a reported 106 mph before encountering the sharp curve in North Philadelphia. News reports have also focused on the possibility of a projectile or other object striking the engineer’s compartment shortly before the accident, but a larger issue, according to rail safety consultant José Marquez, is the lack of safety systems that could have prevented the derailment.

“There were control systems in place, but not in both directions,” said Marquez, a former safety manager for Tren Urbano in Puerto Rico. “Why put it on one direction and not the other? That is very peculiar.”


Marquez was referring to technology known as automatic train control, which had already been in use for southbound trains and, due to new federal directives, is being added to all northbound lines. The system detects when a train is traveling above the speed limit and sends a signal to the engineer. If the engineer fails to act, the system will automatically apply the train’s brakes.

Risk assessment of all the curves along the Northeast Corridor and increased wayside speed limit signage to provide “a redundant means to remind engineers and conductors of the authorized speed” were also included in the federal requirements put in place last week for Amtrak to resume service.

Marquez, who said National Transportation Safety Board investigators are “top of the line and everyone in the industry respects them,” said that future rail travel will likely be safer as a result of the investigation.

“There is a saying, every safety rule is written in blood. Any time something happens, [an] industry looks into it to find out what’s wrong,” he said. “From every tragedy we learn something. … If people think these reports end up in a desk somewhere and no one reads them, they are wrong. We read them and share them, discuss it among ourselves and throughout our systems.”

William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, is among the thousands of commuters who regularly ride Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line, 750,000 of them last year. Shortly after the May 12 derailment — he was going the other way on the Amtrak line — he spoke about how the risk of an accident is not something that crosses most riders’ minds.

“As I was hearing the news and watching the [footage] 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 [that night], so I probably just missed [Train 188].”

Fred Jacobs, senior vice president at AKRF, Inc., an environmental and engineering consulting firm, travels to New York from Baltimore on average once a week, and has done so for the past 13 years.

In order to return to Baltimore after the Amtrak accident, he took the Bolt Bus for the first time. Jacobs said it was “OK in a pinch,” but “I wouldn’t want to do it all the time.” It took longer, was lesscomfortable and had fewer amenities for professionals, though on that day there were many suit-clad “Acela riders who had to get out of town,” he said. Jacobs chose to video conference into a meeting he had to facilitate in New York the next day and “it wasn’t good,” he lamented. “You lose a lot.”

Weldon Spurling, a medical student who recently began commuting daily from Washington to Baltimore, still saw 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 [you instead] 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 shared 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 worried her was a meeting took take place only hours after the derailment to determine whether Amtrak should receive a $252 million budget cut. The Obama administration called for boosting Amtrak funding to $2.45 billion, but on May 13, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee blocked a bid by Democrats to increase the federally-subsidized carrier’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.

Daroff said while he will be more cognizant of safety factors, he will be boarding an Amtrak train again soon.

He said, “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.”

Lives lost

Among the dead, Zemser, the Naval Academy midshipman, was traveling home to visit his family in Long Island.

Zemser was completing his second year at the academy, said Rabbi Joshua Sherwin, a chaplain at the academy. Sherwin has known Zemser and his parents, Howard and Susan, since the day Justin arrived in Annapolis.

“Justin was a regular at services; he was here almost every week and actively participated,” said Sherwin. “He was a member of the Jewish Midshipmen’s Club and was recently elected incoming vice president” after serving a year as secretary.

In addition to knowing Justin through faith-related activities, Sherwin got to know him “as a fun kid.” Zemser, known to friends as Z, traveled with a group to Israel in March led by Sherwin and sponsored by the Friends of the Jewish Chapel.

The 10-day interfaith trip comprised religious activities, touristy outings and a day spent with the Israeli navy that included a visit to the Golan Heights led by a colonel who fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

“He was deeply moved,” Sherwin said of Zemser. “He asked a lot of questions and really dug in throughout and engaged with the trip. It affected him on the personal Jewish level and in the larger world view.”

Prior to the May 15 funeral, Justin’s uncle, Richard Zemser, encapsulated his nephew’s short life.

“He did more things in his young 20 years,” he said, “than anybody can imagine.”

Zemser was goal oriented, said the uncle, deeply dedicated to education and encouraging of such traits in others. He was co-captain of his high school football team, class president and valedictorian at Channel View School for Research in Rockaway Park, N.Y. At the Naval Academy, he was set to mentor incoming freshman and had his sights 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,” said Richard Zemser. “No question. That’s why he was in the academy, that’s why he wanted to serve his country.”

Midshipmen in crisp white uniforms carried Zemser’s flag-draped casket at the funeral in Hewlett, N.Y. More than 400 people attended another service May 17 at the Commander Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel at the Naval Academy. Commandant Capt. Bill Byrne and company officer Capt. Brandy Soublet spoke at the service, as did Ross Gilchriest, Zemser’s best friend and Navy football teammate.

Sherwin said the hour-long Jewish-themed service was intentionally accessible to everyone.

“We wanted to be true to who Justin was,” said the rabbi, who described leading the service as difficult. “I was having a hard time emotionally, but that’s what we do. … We get together and celebrate someone’s life.”

Rachel Jacobs, the daughter of former Michigan state Sen. Gilda Jacobs, was commuting home to her husband and 2-year-old son in Manhattan when the train derailed. In statements to the media, friends and family members remembered her as loving and attentive, a person who devoted her life to education and social justice. A private service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York memorialized her life.

“We will continue to honor her,” her husband, Todd Waldman, said at the service, according to the New York Daily News. “Remember how each and every one of you shaped her world.”
Songs that were special to the Swarthmore College and Columbia Business School graduate were played at the memorial, including The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” which she sang to her son; the Black Crowes’ “She Talks to Angels”; and Journey’s “Faithfully,” the first dance at her wedding.

“When we think about what it means to be Jewish, it’s very much focused on building community,” Jacobs once said in describing Detroit Nation, a nonprofit group she co-founded in 2010 to help Detroit-area natives stay connected and involved even if they didn’t live there.

A funeral for Jacobs was held Monday in Michigan, where she was buried in her hometown of Ferndale.

JTA contributed to this article.
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Related: Passenger trains safer way to travel than cars

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