Couple Celebrating 50th Anniversary Died in Amtrak Derailment

Donald and Marjorie Varnadoe of Georgia were traveling cross-country when a train derailed in Montana on Saturday. Zach Schneider, a computer scientist from Illinois, also was killed.,


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Donald and Marjorie Varnadoe of St. Simons Island, Ga., were on a long-awaited cross-country vacation to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary when the Amtrak train they were traveling in derailed in Montana on Saturday.

On the same train, Zachariah Schneider, a computer scientist from Fairview Heights, Ill., was traveling with his wife, Rebecca, to Portland, Ore., where they spent their honeymoon in 2016.

The Varnadoes and Mr. Schneider died when eight of the 10 passenger cars on the Empire Builder train jumped the tracks. Mr. Schneider was less than two months shy of his fifth wedding anniversary.

As investigators continued to look for a cause of the derailment, relatives and friends struggled with grief over three lives that ended on a remote stretch of railway near Joplin, Mont.

Donald Varnadoe, 74, worked in the real estate business for 45 years, 24 of them as an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Access Realty in Georgia, in the city of Brunswick and on St. Simons Island, a co-worker said.

He was a hard worker but was often called upon for his spiritual side, enlisted to say prayers during group lunches and other office gatherings in Brunswick.

Mr. Varnadoe delivered his last prayer with his team members on Sept. 21, at the end of a monthly sales meeting and just before they ate the brownies that his wife had baked for their lunch.

“He prays for the people who are sick and passed away,” said Robert Kozlowski, a managing broker who worked with Mr. Varnadoe for 18 years.

“He actually said in his prayer, ‘Life is short,’ and we should tell people every day how we feel,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Varnadoe, who grew up in Georgia, lived with his wife, Marjorie Pitman Varnadoe, 72, on St. Simons Island.

The couple moved into their house in 1976, Mr. Kozlowski said, adding that Mr. Varnadoe liked to remark that “their truck pulled into their driveway on July 4.”

In the weeks leading up to their departure on the train trip, Mr. Varnadoe watched videos about journeys by rail and excitedly shared them with his co-workers, saying he and his wife would be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

“On his way out, he said, ‘This is our trip of a lifetime,'” Mr. Kozlowski said.

As the couple headed west from Washington, D.C., at the start of the trip on Friday, Mr. Varnadoe called the office to tell his colleagues how much fun they were having, Mr. Kozlowski said.

They had a son, Jason, and a grandson, Parker, and a daughter-in-law, Millie, he said.

Ms. Varnadoe, a retired educator, was a tireless volunteer for various causes, Mr. Kozlowski later wrote in a text message. “Don said she couldn’t say no,” he wrote.

Relatives and friends recalled happy visits at the couple’s home, fishing, playing cards and sharing walks, according to memories posted on an online condolence page.

Ms. Varnadoe was a teacher, principal, personnel director and assistant superintendent in the Glynn County, Ga., public schools, The Brunswick News reported. Her husband served on the school board for four years.

Victoria Hunnicutt, who was in a doctoral program with Ms. Varnadoe at Georgia Southern University, said they would gather at the Varnadoes’ house for study weekends.

“They were such great hosts, and they always planned at least one fun outing so we could focus on something besides academics,” Ms. Hunnicutt wrote on the condolence page.

Ms. Varnadoe, she said, was “a true angel.”


Zach Schneider and his wife, Rebecca, in an undated photo. Ms. Schneider, who was injured in the derailment, described her husband in a lawsuit against Amtrak as “precious and loved.”Credit…U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

Zachariah Schneider, 28, who was known as Zach, met his wife, Rebecca, when they were students at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He was studying computer science and was a national champion in collegiate parliamentary debate. Ms. Schneider was studying medicine.

They married on Nov. 19, 2016.

A lawsuit that Ms. Schneider filed against Amtrak and BNSF Railway in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on Tuesday offered details of the life the couple shared. It is seeking damages for Ms. Schneider’s injuries, and says Mr. Schneider’s injuries “ultimately caused his tragic and untimely death.”

After graduating in 2015, Mr. Schneider worked as a software developer and engineer for technology companies, the lawsuit says. Ms. Schneider worked as a physician assistant. They settled in Fairview Heights, Ill., watching Green Bay Packers on Sundays.

At one game in freezing temperatures, they laughed as they watched his beard freeze to his clothing, a statement from Ms. Schneider’s lawyers said.

The couple rescued dogs and fostered kittens. Mr. Schneider also volunteered at a grade school in St. Louis, teaching coding to children with limited access to computer resources, and coached the debate team at a local university, the filing said.

Mr. Schneider, who grew up in Great Mills, Md., worked for Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in 2015 as director of technology, the statement from the legal team said. On Twitter last year, Mr. Schneider said that he had built an app to help precinct captains report election results. “It’s not rocket science!” he wrote.

On Sept. 24, the couple boarded the train in Chicago on what was meant to be a two-day trip to Portland. They had gone there on their honeymoon, enjoyed the city and wanted to go back, Robert Mongeluzzi, a member of Ms. Schneider’s legal team, said in an interview.

“Trains rule,” Mr. Schneider wrote on Twitter the day of their departure. “When I am the president there will be so many trains.”

On Sept. 25, Mr. Schneider left his wife to rest in the sleeper car, the last on the train, and went to look at the scenery from the train’s viewing car.

It was “the last time she would see Zach alive,” the lawsuit says.

In a statement from her legal team, Ms. Schneider described her husband as “precious and loved.”

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