By Vivian Rattay Carter
I did not know him as a midshipman, that dashing 20-year-old in dress whites whose image began flashing across the tv screen on the evening of May 13.
I knew Justin Zemser as a very bright, gentle, well-liked sixth grader eight years ago, even then a leader among his peers at Channel View School for Research in Rockaway Park, where I was his science teacher. In a class with a curriculum focused on group explorations of the concepts of physical science, Justin was always prepared, consistently contributing his best efforts. I recall he was very close to his pal who also played in the Rockaway Ravens football league, Breland Archbold, whose father was in charge of that program.
Channel View infuses Outward Bound design principles throughout its classrooms—speaking often of the importance of empathy and caring, collaboration and competition, diversity and inclusion, respect for the natural world and responsibility for learning. Another principle, service learning, is often phrased through the simple motto “we are crew, not passengers.” Justin exemplified those design principles in every way while a student at Channel View. He achieved the top academic honor of class valedictorian, while excelling in sports, student government, and community charitable activities. He was an Outward Bound paragon. Someone you’d want on your team if faced with a tough challenge.
By March 2013, I was thrilled to read in the New York Daily News that Justin and his four closest friends from Channel View were on the path to college success, despite the obstacles placed in their way by Superstorm Sandy. Reading Clem Richardson’s story will break your heart, in light of recent events. http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/queens/city-beat-rockaway-teens-united-scholars-friends-article-1.1284548. All of Justin and his friends had competed in sports and the classroom, earning generous college scholarships. Justin wanted to be a Navy Seal and got his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at that time. His years of hard work were paying off.
Utter shock and disbelief consumed me, on learning that Justin’s promising life came to an end in the twisted wreckage of the Amtrak train that crashed outside Philadelphia on the evening of May 12. Anger too, when the media reported that the black box taken from the crash site showed the train traveling at 106 mph (over twice the speed limit), obviously too fast to take a curve along the route. The 31-year-old engineer at the controls, with over 200 lives in his hands, apparently committed a huge lapse in judgment. Coincidentally, that young man was also from Queens, like Justin.
There is so much to say about a bright life snuffed out too soon, in what we often call “accidents.” Inquiring people always ask “why” and “how” did it turn out this way? The engineer lived, and Justin, probably just unlucky to have sat in the “wrong” car or on the “wrong” side of the train, is now gone. The National Transportation Safety Board says the derailment could have been prevented had an automatic safety system been in place on that portion of the line. It wasn’t. Instead, passengers had to rely on the skill and judgment of the engineer in control of the train, which appear to have been lacking.
When any vehicle is being operated at more than twice the speed limit, and something goes wrong, why call it an “accident?” Call it what it is. It’s more like vehicular homicide.
We all place so much faith in the bright lights like Justin. Until Tuesday, he was part of the promise of our future. We can’t allow their lives to be extinguished without responsibility or consequences.
Or will we?
Story copyright 2015 Vivian R. Carter. Photos (including header photo) copyright 2006 Vivian R. Carter