Hurricane Sandy flooded the high school on the New York coast and wrecked its football field.
Newly-elected class president Justin Zemser called the students together.
"He just kept our spirits up," said Khaleel Anderson, a classmate. "We didn't even want to come to school."
Zemser, 20, was graduating class president and valedictorian of Channel View School for Research. He was finishing his second year at the Naval Academy when he was killed in an Amtrak train derailment Tuesday night in Philadelphia.
The derailment left more than 200 people injured and killed seven. Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that a preliminary review of the train's data recorder showed it was exceeding 100 mph ahead of a curve with a 50 mph speed limit.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus offered condolences to the brigade of midshipmen on Wednesday morning, before his speech at the academy about changes to Navy policy.
"I know that the brigade, the Navy family is struggling with this," he said. "Our thoughts, our prayers go out to family, friends and to the entire brigade for losing Zemser, a crucial member of this institution."
Zemser was a diligent student and a leader admired by his friends back home in Rockaway Beach, his mother, Susan, said in a telephone interview with The Capital.
"Everybody looked up to him," she said.
Zemser, who aspired to be a Navy SEAL, twice earned straight A's during the past school year, she said. In high school, he was encouraged to apply to the academy by an uncle, a Navy submariner, his mother said.
His high school principal, Patricia Tubridy, said he was the type of student who reminded her why she taught.
"He was a loving son, nephew and cousin," Susan Zemser said in a statement to the TV news media. "This tragedy has shocked us all in the worst way and we wish to spend this time grieving with our close family and friends."
Zemser was a member of the academy's Sprint Football team. His bio page on the website says he was a two-year letter winner in high school as a wide receiver. The sprint squad is for players who weigh less than 172 pounds. Zemser was also in the Jewish Midshipmen Club, and slated to be its vice president for 20155-2016, according to the club's web page.
"The Naval Academy is deeply saddened to report that a midshipman was named as one of the passengers," the academy said in a news release.
Zemser also interned during the summer of 2012 for New York City Councilman Eric Ulrich.
"Justin was truly a bright, talented and patriotic young man," Ulrich said in a statement. "He will be sorely missed."
U.S. Rep Gregory W. Meeks of New York said in a statement he had "the great honor" of nominating Zemser to the academy, and called him "an outstanding young man whose high character, intellectual curiosity, and maturity beyond his years inspired confidence in what he and his generation are destined to achieve."
Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 was traveling from Washington to New York carrying 238 passengers and five crew members when it derailed about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Dan Colacicco, 64, a sugar analyst from Annapolis who was headed to Manhattan for an industry conference, knew something was wrong when the train hit a curve. "Then instead of banking into the turn, we banked out of it," he said. "I kept thinking, 'It's not going to go over, it's not going to go over.' Then I must have hit something and blacked out."
When Colacicco came to, his train car was on its side and a woman was three feet above him, knocking out a window. "I didn't think there was any way I could go out because I only had one good arm," he said. But then passengers started helping one another — some hoisted, others lifted. One by one, those who could manage escaped.
Colacicco believes others remained motionless in the car, but isn't sure, as his glasses were lost in the crash.
After climbing out of the window near the roof, Colacicco said he and the other passengers found themselves on the side of the car 10 feet off the ground, amid a scene of devastation. Twisted metal stood in heaps. No signs of movement came from another car nearby.
Firefighters soon brought ladders, and once on the ground, the survivors who could walk were moved to a secure area where everyone was given a number between one and three, he said.
Colacicco was a three, one of the "not so bad cases," he said. "They had so many people they were trying to take to the hospital that we actually went to the hospital in a [police] wagon."
After being triaged in the hospital for a sprained shoulder and lacerations to his leg, arm and face, Colacicco was picked up by relatives. They got back to Annapolis around 6 a.m. Wednesday. That afternoon, his doctor told him he had a cracked collar bone, too.
Colacicco, who rides Amtrak a fair amount, said he never thought a derailment would occur while he was on board a train. When he awoke in the overturned car, he was "absolutely in disbelief," he said.
An online timetable for the train included a scheduled departure from Baltimore's Penn Station at 7:54 p.m.
The timetable also included an original scheduled departure from Washington's Union Station at 7:10 p.m., and subsequent departures from New Carrolton at 7:22 p.m. and BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport at 7:37 p.m. prior to the train's reaching Penn Station.
After Penn Station, the train was scheduled to depart Aberdeen at 8:16 p.m., Wilmington, Del., at 8:43 p.m. and Philadelphia at 9:10 p.m., according to the online schedule.
Amtrak did not immediately respond to questions early Wednesday as to whether Train 188 made all of its locally scheduled stops and how many people boarded at each, or if it was on schedule.
Zemser's death is at least the fifth among midshipmen in the last 18 months.
The other mids who were killed include:
Midshipman 2nd Class Rolando Amador, 22, of Harpswell, Maine was found dead in his dorm room at the academy In February. The death remains under investigation.