Justin Zemser, a 20-year-old Navy midshipman, sent his mother in Queens a text Tuesday night, shortly after boarding a Manhattan-bound Amtrak train.
"I am on the train," he wrote after boarding in Washington, D.C. "Everything is good."
After reading the message, Susan Zemser began cooking her only child's favorite dinner: pasta with chicken.
"It was waiting for him," she said Wednesday.
But her son, on leave from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, never made it home. He was among at least seven passengers killed when the Northeast Regional train derailed at high speed in Philadelphia, officials said.
News of Zemser's death spread quickly through Far Rockaway, where the former high school valedictorian, student body president and captain of the football team was born and raised.
"The school is devastated," said Patricia Tubridy, 62, retired principal of Channel View School for Research, where Zemser graduated in 2013. "You're talking about an exceptional young man. He was loved by everybody -- students and staff."
In his senior year, Zemser and a classmate analyzed the school's SAT and ACT test results and held workshops for teachers and parents, offering suggestions on how to better prepare college-bound students, Tubridy said.
Zemser, a sophomore at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, wanted to be a Navy SEAL.
In preparation for the elite assignment, the former lifeguard had started taking scuba diving classes, said his uncle, Richard Zemser of Merrick.
He hopes his nephew's promising life, while cut short, can serve as an inspiration. "Let it be for something good," he said. "If some kid could see this and say, 'If Justin did this, then maybe I can do it, too.' "
Zemser left an impression on Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). Like hundreds of other smart, determined students, he came to Schumer's office in 2012 and asked him to support his Naval Academy application. "With all those applicants, he still stood out," Schumer said Wednesday. "I deeply mourn his loss for his family, but also for our country because he would have done so much for us."
Relatives, friends and colleagues identified other victims of the derailment:
Gaines, 48, an Associated Press video software architect, was a married father of two.
He was named the news agency's "Geek of the Month" in May 2012 for his "tireless dedication and contagious passion" to technological innovation.
Gaines was riding the train home to Plainsboro, New Jersey, after meetings at the news agency's Washington office. He joined the AP in 1998 and was a key factor in nearly all of the news agency's video initiatives, the news agency said.
Gaines "leaves behind a legacy of professionalism and critical accomplishment, kindness and humor," AP president and CEO Gary Pruitt told employees in an email. "He will be missed."
Jacobs, 39, was chief executive of ApprenNet, an education technology company in Philadelphia.
The New York City resident was the daughter of former Michigan state Sen. Gilda Jacobs, according to The Detroit News.
"This is an unthinkable tragedy," the Jacobs family said in a statement Wednesday night. "Rachel was a wonderful mother, daughter, sister, wife and friend. She was devoted to her family, her community and the pursuit of social justice. We cannot imagine life without her."
She is survived by her husband and their 2-year-old son.
Gilani, 55, of Rockville, Maryland, was a senior vice president at Wells Fargo.
"It is with great sadness that Wells Fargo confirms that Abid Gilani, a valued member of our Commercial Real Estate division, has passed away. Our hearts go out to all those impacted by this tragedy," the bank said in a statement.
Before that, Gilani worked as senior vice president for Marriott International's mortgage banking division. He spent about seven years with the hotel chain, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Gilani left behind a wife, son and daughter, according to The Washington Post.
Griffith, 42, was the dean of student affairs and student life at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. His death was confirmed late Wednesday night by college president Rudolph F. Crew.
Griffith had worked at the college since 2011 and last month earned a doctorate from CUNY, Crew said. He lived in Brooklyn and has one son, Crew said.
"He had an enormous and gracious effervescent personality," Crew said of Griffith. "He was loved by the students."
Griffith was an advocate for Medgar Evers students and guided them through issues both academic and personal, Crew said.
"He distinguished himself by virtue of the level and intensity of his student advocacy, there just was never a stone left unturned," he said. "There were tremendous numbers of students who really depended upon him for guidance."
With Candice Ruud,
Joan Gralla and AP