The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lives lost in Amtrak crash: A real estate manager, tech VP, college dean, olive oil salesman, banker, midshipman, tech CEO, AP video staffer

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At least eight people were killed in Tuesday’s Amtrak train derailment, and each victim has now been identified. The details of their remarkable lives revealed the depth of this catastrophe: a college dean who, after overcoming an impoverished childhood, was working toward his doctorate; a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy who aspired to become a Navy SEAL; a woman who, at just 39, had become the chief executive officer of an education tech firm in Philadelphia; an Associated Press software architect who was known for his composure, kindness and frequent hugs; a Wells Fargo executive who was an avid cyclist and a constant optimist; a technology company vice president who lived in Maryland and had a wry sense of humor.

The seventh and eighth victims were identified Thursday afternoon: Laura Finamore, 47, a New Yorker who worked in corporate real estate; and Giuseppe Piras, 41, an Italian who sold olive oil and wine and was in the United States on business.

Read all of their profiles below.

[For Amtrak Train 188 riders, the world turned upside down in a flash]

Justin Zemser | Jim Gaines | Rachel Jacobs | Abid Gilani | Derrick Griffith | Bob Gildersleeve Jr. | Laura Finamore

Laura Finamore, 47:

They remembered her as a giver.

As a daughter to her parents and as a sister to three brothers. As a friend to childhood classmates she had known since they attended school together four decades ago in Douglaston, N.Y. As a mentor to her colleagues and as a fiercely loyal advocate for her clients. And as an aunt — her favorite role — to seven nieces and nephews.

On Thursday afternoon, the family of Laura Finamore, 47, announced that she had died in the train derailment.

“Laura’s smile could light up a room and her infectious laughter will be remembered by many for years to come,” they wrote in a statement. “She was always there when you needed her — with a hug, encouraging words or a pat on the back.”

Finamore, a graduate from George Washington University, worked for 20 years in corporate real estate. In 2008, she joined Cushman & Wakefield, where she most recently served as a managing director.

“Her colleagues and clients considered Laura a friend, and were tremendously honored to know her and work alongside her,” the statement said.

She helped manage portfolios for major companies, even commuting between New York and Los Angeles to handle one account.

“Laura was a tenacious deal maker and competitor who never backed down from what she thought was right,” the statement said. “Her clients and colleagues always knew that their best interests were the foundation for her professional focus.”

The letter called her “an incredibly loving and giving person, touching many people each and every day through her generous spirit, thoughtfulness and compassion for others.”

Bob Gildersleeve Jr., 45:

On Wednesday, Bob Gildersleeve Sr. had been waiting for news since learning the night before of the train’s derailment. He had been told that his son’s phone was found but none of his other belongings.

Seven families, he knew then, were making funeral arrangements.

“I pray to God I’m not number eight,” he said.

He wouldn’t allow himself to talk of his son in the past tense. He said he wanted to believe that his boy, who was riding on the first car of the train, somehow hit his head and was sitting in a sports bar somewhere, unaware of who he was — but alive.

That’s the fantasy he and his wife had shared. But Gildersleeve had seen the aftermath of such disasters during his years as a New York City police officer and fireman.

“You watch,” he said. “When they flip those trains over tonight, there’s going to be bodies.”

On Thursday, investigators discovered an eighth. It was his son’s.

Bob Gildersleeve Jr., who lived in Elkridge, Md., was vice president of corporate accounts at Ecolab, a Minnesota-based company specializing in water treatment and energy. He had previously lived abroad for work and enjoyed his job.

“He was a great guy,” said Ecolab spokesman Roman Blahoski.”He was extremely talented. He had high energy. He had great passion for the work that he did here at Ecolab and for life as well.”

Bob Sr. described his son, one of his four children, as a devoted father of a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old.

“My grandchildren are broken-hearted,” he said. “And I’m cried out. I can’t cry no more.”

Derrick Griffith, 42:

Derrick Griffith used to wander around the housing projects in New York, where he worked for a nonprofit, calling to kids by name, teasing them, bringing them into the fold, talking to them about sticking with school. He had a charisma and sincerity that easily earned him friends, said Kathy Gordon, who worked closely with him for years.

His own story — having grown up in those same projects, a bright kid who found his way out of extreme poverty to education and a career he was passionate about — helped him bridge any skepticism.

“He had a very special way of connecting with young people, and encouraging them, and helping them get back on track,” Gordon said, after fighting back tears. “He was really inspirational.”

Griffith, 42, was dean of student affairs and enrollment management at City University of New York’s Medgar Evers College, a role that had him tenaciously advocating for students, especially black men, fighting to keep them in college, said the school’s president, Rudolph Crew.

It hadn’t been easy to get there. And that, perhaps, helped him see how best to help others succeed.

“He was extraordinary,” Crew said of the dean. Griffith didn’t seem to get discouraged; he lightened even the most difficult situations with an easy sense of humor and a comedian’s timing. He helped students through hard times, like the single mom who didn’t have a home or enough money for food last fall.

“He would take on anybody if it meant helping a student get something they needed,” Crew said. “Whatever it took. I will remember him for being that strong, clear, constant voice of advocacy for students, to help them in those aspects of their lives. His willingness to be just without stop. Without fail.”

With all the national debate about improving access to higher education, Crew said, “you need great foot soldiers to make it happen. Derrick was one of those foot soldiers.”

His youth was a struggle, said Gordon, assistant executive director of Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit that works with young people in poverty in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan.

“He was a very bright guy, but as we all know, it’s not easy for young men of color growing up in poverty, in housing developments, going to public school, to excel,” she said. “He really persevered.”

They worked together at Hudson Guild, in city projects, where she saw Griffith, a slight man with a big personality, really push to help kids in trouble. “They really loved him,” she said, “as did the adults there.”

The connection was real, she said: “People can be charismatic and there’s nothing there. That wasn’t the case with him. He was an extremely articulate guy, passionate.”

She thinks that’s why a school he founded, the CUNY Preparatory Transitional High School, which helped students get high-school-equivalency diplomas, was successful, she said. “He was a real cheerleader.”

Several years ago, he led Groundwork, a group helping children in East New York, an agency that has since been absorbed into Good Shepherd. “That organization was a very grass-roots, community-based organization, right in the thick of high, high poverty, surrounded by housing developments,” Gordon said.

Griffith had a number of roles at Medgar Evers, a college in Brooklyn that grants both associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, beginning as assistant provost.

And as a single father, he raised a son who also earned a good education. “He’s a very dedicated dad,” Gordon said.

Griffith wasn’t just lifting others up. He was continuing his own education, as well: Last month, he successfully defended his dissertation about African American boys for his doctorate of philosophy in education from the CUNY Graduate Center.

He had expected to take part in the commencement ceremony next month.

Giuseppe Piras, 41:

He was supposed to have flown from Washington to New York, but he missed his plane, according to Italian media. So, instead, Giuseppe Piras took Amtrak Train 188.

Claudio Bisogniero, the Italian ambassador to the United States, confirmed the news of his countryman’s death Thursday afternoon.

Piras was an olive oil and wine salesman from Ittiri in the island region of Sardinia, according to ANSA, an Italian wire service. He was in the United States on business.

Abid Gilani, 55:

Abid Gilani loved to cycle. When he was a senior finance executive at Marriott, he often hooked up with Ed Ryan, the company’s general counsel, for morning rides on the weekend.

“We were the guys on River Road getting in your way,” Ryan said.

Before Gilani moved to Maryland, he lived — and cycled — in the San Francisco area, which Ryan said “gave him instant credibility in the cycling world.”

“He was a strong rider,” Ryan said.

On their 50-mile treks, they’d talk about family, work and Gilani’s curious background for someone who worked in hotel finance — his earlier study of mining and engineering.

“He was a really interesting guy,” Ryan said. “It wasn’t all finance all the time for him. I always found that fascinating.”

Leaving Marriott for a job as a senior vice president with Wells Fargo in New York gave Gilani a chance to broaden his career, Ryan said. He died while he was traveling to New York after a funeral for an uncle in Virginia, according to the New York Daily News.

“He was one of those really great all-around guys to be around — work, sports, out of work, an all-around optimist, a smart, intelligent, friendly guy,” Ryan said.

He leaves behind a wife, a son and a daughter.

Gilani’s death is the second to jolt Marriott employees in a matter of days. Earlier in the week, former senior executive Richard Vilardo and his wife, Julianne, were killed at their home in Rockville. There have been no arrests in the case.

“I can’t ever remember a week like this,” Ryan said. “It’s been very sad.”

Justin Zemser, 20:

His family knew he should have called. He always called. Justin Zemser’s life was defined by discipline — the kind that made him his high school’s valedictorian, earned him a place at the U.S. Naval Academy and fueled his ambition to become an elite Navy SEAL.

On Tuesday night, the 20-year-old midshipman had boarded Amtrak Train 188 on his way home to Rockaway Beach, N.Y. When his family learned that the train had derailed — and he still hadn’t called to tell them he was okay — they panicked. His uncle phoned hospitals over and over. He contacted police and the Naval Academy, then more hospitals.

His frantic efforts ended Wednesday morning when he learned that Zemser had died.

“This just shouldn’t happen,” Richard Zemser said, struggling for composure. “This wonderful, wonderful kid.”

Zemser was a sophomore at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he played wide receiver on the school’s sprint football team, a varsity sport limited to players who weigh 172 pounds or less. He was on leave and headed home when the Amtrak train derailed in north Philadelphia about 9:30 p.m. He had just been home to visit family for Mother’s Day.

“I speak for the entire brigade of midshipmen, faculty and staff in saying we are completely heartbroken by this,” said Cmdr. John Schofield, a spokesman for the U.S. Naval Academy.

Howard Zemser, Justin’s father, asked Wednesday for more time with family before talking publicly about his only child.

But Richard and his wife, Cathy Zemser, warmly described their nephew, whom Richard Zemser would tease when he called: “Am I talking to the first Jewish president of the United States?”

[Midshipman: Bible course ‘rekindled my passion for learning’]

They would both laugh, but Richard Zemser said he was serious, too – there was something about the way his nephew would set his mind to something, and make it happen. At 5-foot-8, he was captain of his high school football team. He was president of Channel View School for Research’s student government. He was valedictorian. And though he would be the first in his immediate family to go to college, he was determined to go to the Naval Academy.

Cathy Zemser remembered leaving him in Annapolis, in his shorts and flip-flops, and returning a few hours later to see him lined up with all the others in his Navy whites.

He played on the academy’s sprint football team as a wide receiver. He was curious. He loved to read, especially books about history. He got excited about small adventures; his uncle would say, “Where are we going to go today?” and they would end up at the Museum of Natural History, or Coney Island, riding the front car in the Cyclone.

He had recently taken his first trip to Israel. In a video posted on YouTube of the Friends of the Jewish Chapel at the Naval Academy spring break trip, midshipmen are seen joyfully exploring Israel, splashing in waterfalls, stepping through ancient stone arches, spreading Dead Sea mud on themselves, singing by firelight.

He turned 20 in March, and on his mom’s Facebook page — rife with photos of her boy — she wished that he would fulfill all of his dreams. He visited her on Mother’s Day, and she posted a message addressed to her own mom, who is no longer living: “Wish you were here to see how your Grandson has grown up you would [have] been so proud of him.”

While in New York last weekend, he stopped by his alma mater to speak with juniors and seniors about commitment — about setting goals and sticking to them. He told them he didn’t want to just be a lieutenant in the Navy. He wanted to be a SEAL.

The school goes from 6th to 12th grade, so the principal, Patricia Tubridy, knew him for many years. She said he preferred the philosophy of the school, a public institution with an ethnically and economically diverse student population.

When he visited the school last spring, he sat down Tubridy for two or three straight hours.

“Who does that? But I was so glad we did,” she said. “He was talking about his family, about how much his mom helped him, supported him.”

During his recent visit, she said, he politely offered to host a workshop on how to help raise students’ SAT and ACT test scores. He had analyzed the data and developed ideas so helpful that she asked him to adapt it for parents, too.

But that wasn’t abnormal for Zemser. He was a deep thinker.

At the Naval Academy, he had just switched majors from engineering to English and finished a course he loved: the Bible and literature. Earlier this month, he wrote a long, thoughtful letter to his uncle, that read, in part:

“In all that we have talked about over the years regarding God, religion, and our place in the grand scheme of things, I now come to you with even more questions. After taking this course, and opening my eyes to a spiritual world well beyond anything I have ever experienced, my mind is jumbled. Where do I fit in all of this? The more I have read the Old Testament, the more I began to understand our roots, our ancestry, and the belief system that is, perhaps, engrained in our blood. I saw an intriguing God, one with great personality, wisdom, and compassion, but also with a variety of flaws and questionable judgments. Questioning God and his motives made him much more relatable, and in weird sense, much more human. And at the same time, I have read about a man in the New Testament, one that built relationships, and loved unconditionally. Where do I go with this?”

He was trying to understand, Richard Zemser said: “He was looking for solutions to whatever exists today in the world.”

“It’s tragic when anybody dies, anybody that you love,” Cathy Zemser said by phone, looking at a photo of her nephew when he was a 4-year-old. “But for a young boy with a brilliant future ahead — it’s just…. It is the most devastating thing.”

Rachel Jacobs, 39:

Rachel Jacobs never seemed to stop going. As soon as she graduated from Columbia University’s business school in 2002, the Michigan native moved from one major job to the next, each step upward to her final landing spot as CEO of ApprenNet, an education technology company.

But for much of Wednesday, her family, friends and co-workers waited anxiously for word of her whereabouts and safety. Then they learned that the 39-year-old was among the seven killed in an Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia.

“This is an unthinkable tragedy,” her family said in a statement. “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. We respectfully ask for privacy so that we can begin the process of grieving.”

Jacobs is the daughter of a former Michigan state senator, Gilda Jacobs. After graduating from Columbia, Jacobs became a manager at the Pragma Corp., where she helped develop IT strategies for the nation of Kyrgyzstan, according to her LinkedIn profile. Then it was off to the Eurasia Group, and then to McGraw-Hill in 2007, where she ultimately worked for five years.

About two years into her tenure at McGraw-Hill, Jacobs, who’d been divorced, got married to Todd Waldman, a consultant.

She also launched a nonprofit called Detroit Nation, a “movement” of more than 7,000 fellow “Detroiters” who offer free consulting for grass-roots entrepreneurs and artists in the Motor City.

By 2012, she became a vice president at Ascend Learning, an education technology company, launching new business units and studying merger and acquisition targets. And she celebrated another milestone: the birth of her first child, according to the Cleveland Jewish News. She and her husband named their son Jacob, whose Hebrew name is Chaim, which means “Life.”

On her Facebook page, Jacobs posted comical and often family-oriented fare. There’s a photo of her mother with her son, another of three dachshunds wearing sweaters; and a photo of her and her husband kissing in Mexico.

“En la Calle de Los Besos en Guanajuato,” she wrote. “Legend says that if you kiss on the steps, you will have 7 years of happiness.”

Jacobs quit Ascend two months ago after she got hired at a company called ApprenNet, an education technology firm in Philadelphia. After so many years of being a consultant, director, manager or vice president, Jacobs was now CEO. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, she traveled twice a week to Philadelphia and had not decided whether to move her family there permanently.

Perry Teicher, the president of Detroit Nation, said in an interview that Jacobs is a “wonderful person, and she always has very strong energy.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Detroit Nation’s Facebook page issued a status update asking people to call a 1-800 number if they have any information on her whereabouts: “We share the shock and sadness so many are feeling right now as our Founder, Rachel Jacobs, is still unaccounted for after last night’s train derailment in Philadelphia. Our thoughts are with her friends and family as the search continues.”

Karl Okamoto, ApprenNet’s co-founder, told the Inquirer that it was especially hard for Amtrak to confirm whether she boarded the train because Jacobs was using a 10-trip ticket, which allows travelers to get on trains without needing a reservation.

ApprenNet’s chief operating officer, Emily Foote, was at the crash scene Wednesday showing photos of Jacobs to reporters and passersby, in the hopes of finding her.

“I went to the hospitals last night and she wasn’t in any of them,” Foote told reporters. “I went to the churches and schools where people are being sheltered, and we still can’t find her.”

The company tweeted its angst: “Thank you for your thoughts & prayers for our CEO, Rachel Jacobs. We are still looking for Rachel & hope she will be with her family soon.”

Hours later, her family learned she was gone.

Jim Gaines, 48:

Jim Gaines was the person who organized the “Bring Your Kids to Work Day” at his Associated Press office. The one who always asked how his colleagues’ families were doing. The guy who gave hugs instead of handshakes.

“He’d say, ‘Hey, I haven’t seen you for a week,’ and he’d give you a hug and ask how everything was going,” said Paul Caluori, global director of digital services at the Associated Press, where Gaines worked as a video software architect. “Sometimes, you’d think, ‘Is he just putting me on?'” Caluori continued. “But then you’d talk to other people and it was like, no, this is Jim, this is Jim. He’s just that thoughtful and kind.”

After meetings in the AP’s Washington offices, the 48-year-old father of two was returning home to Plainsboro, N.J., where he lived with his wife, Jacqueline, son Oliver, 16, and daughter, Anushka, 11.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, family said this: “Jim was more precious to us than we can adequately express.”

Caluori joined the AP around the same time as Gaines, and the two had worked closely together over the past 15 years.

“Aside from his significant and high level of talent at work, he was one of the most outstanding, kind people I’ve ever met,” Caluori said Wednesday. “And I know people speak in superlatives about people they’ve lost, but with Jim it just seem especially apt.”

Gaines regularly traveled to Washington for work, said Micah Gelman, who was executive producer of AP’s U.S. video operations in Washington from 2005 to 2012 and is now director of video at The Washington Post. Gaines’s responsibilities included making sure all of the AP’s videos could be immediately delivered to and broadcast on the many news outlets that subscribed to the AP feed.

Gelman remembers calling Gaines at home on Christmas Day in 2006 because the AP’s video feed wasn’t showing up properly on different news outlets, and no one else knew how to fix it.

“We were publishing breaking news, and no one could see it,” Gelman said. “He was the only person at that time who understood all of the technology, and he understood the urgency. He never got flustered when it was all going to hell. He was always just calm.”

In an e-mail to employees, Gary Pruitt, AP’s president and CEO, told his staff that Gaines left behind a legacy “of professionalism and critical accomplishment, kindness and humor.”

Pruitt listed the numerous awards Gaines had received over the years, including a Geek of the Month award bestowed by AP’s technology department in May, 2012. “At AP,” the award said, “not a frame goes by in the world of video that escapes the passionate scrutiny of video architect Jim Gaines.”