Illinois man and couple celebrate 50th anniversary of Amtrak train derailment

SAVANA, GA (AP) – Don Varnade has spent months watching videos of train trips on his desk computer in preparation for a special cross-country vacation to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary and Margie Varnade.

He called co-workers on the Georgia coast, where he’s sold real estate for decades, from the first stop on their Friday trip to let them know it had turned into their dream vacation.

“He called the office and said how excited they were,” said Robert Kozlowski, principal of broker at Coldwell Banker Access Realty in the coastal city of Brunswick. “They were in Washington, D.C., heading west.”

One day later, the couple died when an Amtrak train derailed in rural Montana.

This photo shows Don and Margie Varnade attending the awards banquet in March 2021 in Savannah, Ga. , to the real estate office where Don Farnade worked. The husband and wife from Saint Simons Island, Georgia, were among three people killed when an Amtrak train derailed in Montana on Saturday, September 25, 2021 (Photo by Robert Kozlowski via The Associated Press)

They were among three people who died along with a 28-year-old Illinois man named Zacharias Schneider, according to the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office in Montana. Schneider was a software developer and a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers. He was traveling to Oregon with his surviving wife.

US investigators said, on Monday, that an Amtrak train was traveling just below the speed limit at about 75 mph (121 km/h) when it veered off the track along a gradual curve, which could eject passengers. The Amtrak Empire Builder en route from Chicago to Seattle crashed Saturday afternoon near Joplin, a town of about 200 people near the Canadian border. The train, which was carrying 141 passengers and crew of 16, was equipped with two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, some of which flipped on their sides. Farm residents mobilized that day to help the injured passengers.

National Transportation Safety Board Vice President Bruce Landsberg said Monday that investigators don’t know what caused the track deviation, but are studying video from the train and another locomotive that passed the same track a little more than an hour ago. He said that the derailed train also had a black box that recorded everything that happened on the train. One possibility is a problem with the tracks, possibly from bending caused by heat, rail crash experts speculate.

Kozlovsky was arriving at church on a Sunday in Georgia when he received a text message warning him of a rumor spreading that tragedy had befallen the Varnado family. A phone call with a family member confirmed the terrible news that the couple had been killed in the derailment.

Everyone in the office was aware of the big trip and were excited for the couple. A co-worker joked that Don Varnade, 74, might have to leave Margie Varnade, 72, at home when he struggled with his computer to print her ticket.

“He said, ‘This is our lifelong journey and we look forward to it so much,'” recalls Kozlovsky, his boss for 18 years.

The Varnado family has lived for 45 years on Saint Simons Island, which is home to about 15,000 people about an hour’s drive south of Savannah. Kozlowski said that Don Varnade liked to tell the story of the truck’s arrival on July 4, 1976—the bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Workers stand near train tracks, Monday, September 27, 2021, next to overturned cars from an Amtrak train that derailed Saturday, near Joplin, Montana, killing three people and injuring others. Federal investigators are looking for the cause of the deviation. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Margie Farnady retired from the Glenn County public school system, where she worked for a long time as a teacher and administrator. Her husband has sold real estate for more than four decades, and he’s showing no sign of slowing down.

Kozlowski said Don Varnade worked every day and often led sales staff in prayer before meetings. His wife was well liked in the office, where she often brought flowers, brownies, and other gifts. She delivered her last pan of brownies before leaving for her anniversary trip.

“If you wanted an example of how people were treated, it was Don and Margie,” Kozlowski said. “With their faith and the way they treat people, I think they’re in a good place, I think.”

Rebecca Schneider, who was also injured in a swerve, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Amtrak and the railroad BNSF. Shortly before she was derailed, Zacharias Schneider left her in the sleeping car and went to sit in the viewing car, where she was “horrificly injured” and killed, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit said the couple, who rescue dogs and care for cats awaiting adoption, met at Southern Illinois University and were married nearly five years ago.

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