Georgia couple identified as two of the three people killed in Montana Amtrak derailment
A retired couple and a 28-year-old who was traveling to Portland with his wife have been identified as the three killed when an Amtrak train derailed in Montana on Saturday.
Don and Margie Varnadoe were aboard the Empire Builder when it derailed near Joplin on Saturday afternoon. Family member Janet Sexton posted on Facebook that they were on their 50th anniversary trip when they died. Zach Schneider, 28, of Missouri, also died in the crash.
They were both heavily involved in the Glynn County School District, on the coast of Georgia, with Margie serving as a teacher, principal, personnel director and assistant superintendent of human resources, according to The Brunswick News, while Don served as a school board member for four years.
He worked as a real estate agent on St. Simons Island before he retired, the News reports.
‘I was just shocked,’ said fellow St. Simons real estate agent Roland Daniel. ‘Three people are dead and two of them are Don and Marge Varnadoe.’
He described them as ‘grateful, wonderful, honorable people,’ noting: ‘It’s a shame they’re gone.’
Don and Margie Varnadoe were identified as two of the victims of the Amtrak derailment in Missouri on Saturday
Zach Schneider is pictured in photos from his Facebook page. Zach was killed on September 25 2021, when an Amtrak train derailed in Montana, on his way to Portland
Three people are dead and more than 50 are injured after an Amtrak train carrying 147 passengers and 13 crew derailed in Montana on Saturday afternoon
This aerial view taken on Sunday shows part of an Amtrak train that derailed in north-central Montana Saturday that killed multiple people and left others hospitalized, officials said
The westbound Empire Builder was en route to Seattle from Chicago, with two locomotives and 10 cars, when it left the tracks about 4pm on Saturday
Amtrak’s Empire Builder derailed near Joplin, Montana around 4pm MST
During her time as an administrator in the Glynn County School District, retired school superintendent Howard Mann said Marge ‘went in and took over our human resources and made some changes.’
She oversaw and implemented a complete reorganization of the office, he explained to the News, and improved upon the application process to attract the best teachers to the district, working directly with Valerie Hepburn, the president of the College of Coastal Georgia, to identify good candidates in the school’s teacher education program.
Marge retired from her position as an assistant superintendent of human resources in June 2011, First Coast News reports.
‘She was sadly missed when she retired,’ Mann said, ‘but her impact lives on.’
Don, meanwhile, served on the Glynn County school board between 1998 and 2002 before stepping down. During his time in office, Mann said he worked hard and conscientiously on improving the attendance zones and boundaries, which are necessary to keep student populations balanced.
‘I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work with on ways to help kids,’ Mann said on Don.
‘He made a concerted effort to follow the rules governing school boards,’ he noted. ‘He knew his issues were policy and budget, and that’s what he stuck to.’
Don decided not to seek re-election, Mann said, and Earl Perry won his seat.
‘He bought me a box of paperwork and showed me everything they had done,’ Perry recounted of taking over for Don. ‘It was a great help.’
Don had worked at Sea Island Realty before joining Coldwell Bankers.
Daniel called him ‘the most solid real estate agent I’ve ever known.
‘He was as kind as they come,’ he said, and listened more than he talked to learn about his customers’ needs.
Of Margie, Daniel said she is ‘just the smartest person I’ve ever known.’
They were both heavily involved in the Glynn County School District, on the coast of Georgia, with Marge, left, serving as an assistant principal, and Don, right, serving for four years as a school board member. He worked as a real estate agent on St. Simons Island before he retired
Following the news of their deaths, residents started posting tributes to the couple, with John Matthews commenting on a story about their reported death: ‘Such a sad moment. They were fine people, close friends, good Christians and real contributors to our community. God rest their souls.’
Elizabeth Horton Ruff also wrote: ‘Margie touched so many lives through her work with students, parents and teachers, as well as the yoga community. She was a leader by example.’
And Cheryl George commented, ‘Oh no, I worked with Don, he was a great man!
‘They will surely be missed in the Golden Isles,’ she wrote.
Zach Schneider, 28, and his wife Becca, 26, were both onboard the train at the time
A GoFundMe page has been set up by a friend of the family for Zach Schneider’s funeral expenses
Zach Schneider is pictured with wife Becca Schneider in photos from her Instagram page. The couple had been married since 2016
The third victim of the train derailment was Missouri engineer, Zach Schneider, 28, who was on the Empire Builder with his wife Becca en route to Portland, Oregon, when it derailed.
Zach, who was from St. Louis and worked for payments firm Stripe, was killed after several of the train cars left the tracks and toppled over onto their sides. He was identified by a GoFundMe page set up to raise money for his funeral.
Schneider’s wife Becca, 26, was traveling with him but survived. She has since posted photos of herself with her late spouse on Facebook, but has not commented.
Family friend Caleb Morris, who created the page, paid tribute to Schneider by saying he was one of the ‘sweetest, smartest, and most unique people I know.’
More than $13,000 had been raised by friends, family members and well-wishers in just ten hours on Sunday night.
‘Zach always used this to push for a better world where everyone was included. I have always respected his ability to think differently. Thankful to have been blessed by knowing you, Zach,’ wrote Morris in a heartfelt plea for donations.
Crews appear to be using ladders to get on top of the cars in a rescue effort on Saturday
It is suspected that the train derailed near the switch at East Buelow. The cause of the derailment is not clear. Pictured: People use ladders to climb up the side of train cars to help trapped passengers escape
Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said Sunday his firm was distraught over the derailment, whose cause has not yet been identified.
‘We are in mourning for the people who lost their lives due to the derailment of the Empire Builder train Saturday, near Joplin, Montana, on the BNSF Railway, as well as the many others who were injured,’ Amtrak’s Bill Flynn said.
‘We have no words that can adequately express our sorrow for those who lost a loved one or who were hurt in this horrible event. They are in our thoughts and prayers.’
In the statement, Flynn said the company was cooperating with the investigation. He added they are working with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Federal Railroad Administration, local law enforcement and response agencies.
‘Amtrak’s immediate and sustained focus is on doing everything we can to help our passengers and crew, especially the families of those who were injured or died, at this painful and difficult time,’ Flynn added.
He said the company’s incident response team has been initiated. Amtrak has sent emergency personnel and company leadership to help support passengers, employees and their families.
The westbound Empire Builder was traveling to Seattle from Chicago when it left the tracks at about 4pm on Saturday near the small town of Joplin. The tracks cut through vast, golden brown wheat fields that were recently harvested.
Several large cranes were brought to the tracks that run roughly parallel to U.S. Highway 2, along with a truckload of gravel and new railroad ties.
Several rail cars could still be seen on their sides.
The train was carrying about 141 passengers and 16 crew members and had two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said.
Passengers are pictured beside derailed cars on the track near Joplin, Montana. One passenger said she heard a boom and felt the carriage ‘pitching violently side-to-side’
At least three cars derailed and two separated from the train
The last train car was completely on its side from the derailment
A 14-member National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) team including investigators and specialists in railroad signals were looking into the cause of the derailment on a BNSF Railway main track that involved no other trains or equipment, board spokesman Eric Weiss said.
The agency is expected to give a press briefing with further information about the derailment in the ‘late afternoon’ on Monday.
The accident scene is about 30 miles from the Canadian border.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said BNSF was readying replacement track for when the NTSB gives the go-head. ‘BNSF has assured me they can get the line up and running in short order,’ he said.
Railroad safety expert David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, said accident scene photos show the derailment occurred at or near a switch, which is where the railway goes from a single track to a double track.
Clarke said the two locomotives and two cars at the front of the train reached the split and continued on the main track, but the remaining eight cars derailed. He said it was unclear if some of the last cars moved onto the second track.
‘Did the switch play some role? It might have been that the front of the train hit the switch and it started fish-tailing and that flipped the back part of the train,’ Clarke said.
Another possibility was a defect in the rail, Clarke said, noting that regular testing doesn’t always catch such problems. He said speed was not a likely factor because trains on that line have systems that prevent excessive speeds and collisions.
Matt Jones, a BNSF Railway spokesman said at a news conference that the track where the accident occurred was last inspected Thursday.
Most of the people on the train were treated and released for their injuries, but seven people who were more seriously hurt remained at the Benefits Health System hospital in Great Falls, Montana, according to Sarah Robbin, Liberty County emergency services co-ordinator.
Another two people were at Logan Health, a hospital in Kalispell, Montana, spokeswoman Melody Sharpton said.
Five of the seven who were injured remained at the Benefits Health System hospital on Monday, with two in the intensive care unit, according to NBC Montana.
Robbin said emergency crews struggled without success to cut open cars with special tools, ‘so they did have to manually carry out many of the passengers that could not walk.’
Robbin said nearby residents rushed to offer help when the derailment occurred.
‘We are so fortunate to live where we do, where neighbors help neighbors,’ she said.
‘The locals have been so amazing and accommodating,’ passenger Jacob Cordeiro said on Twitter. ‘They provided us with food, drinks, and wonderful hospitality. Nothing like it when the best comes together after a tragedy.’
Cordeiro, who is from Rhode Island, just graduated from college and was traveling with his father to Seattle to celebrate.
‘I was in one of the front cars and we got badly jostled, thrown from one side of the train to the other,’ he told MSNBC. He said the car left the tracks, but did not fall over.
‘I’m a pretty big guy and it picked me up from my chair and threw me into one wall and then threw me into the other wall,’ Cordeiro said.
Another passenger, Joe Abaunza, said he ‘felt a jolt,’ and ‘before I knew it, I’ve been swung across the room – or at least it went from one place to another.
‘I was on the drivers’ side, per se, and I ended up on the passenger side. We had flipped over.’
Abaunza, of Miami Beach, Florida, said he saw one of the train attendants break her arm while others ‘were screaming, yelling crying.’
‘You could tell some people were in pain,’ he told 7News Miami.
‘It’s rough,’ he said, as he prepared to fly to New Mexico to continue his trip. ‘It’s not easy.
‘I mean, I feel for the people who lost their lives, for the people who have to deal with the loss of life.’
Chester Councilwoman Rachel Ghekiere said she and others helped about 50 to 60 passengers who were brought to a school..’
Liberty County Sheriff Nick Erickson said the rest of the names of the dead would not be released until relatives had been notified.
Ms Robbin said nearby residents had rushed to help when the derailment occurred.
‘We are so fortunate to live where we do, where neighbors help neighbors,’ she said.
One car flipped over. Some of the cars slid down a 30 foot embankment
The train spread across two tracks. It is believed the accident happened near a switch
Workers walk next to an Amtrak train that derailed Saturday just west of Joplin, Montana
Amtrak said it had sent emergency personnel and other officials to the site to help passengers, employees and local officials. It said company officials had been ‘deeply saddened’ to learn of the deaths.
Following the derailment, Sunday’s westbound Empire Builder from Chicago was terminating in Minneapolis, and the eastbound train was originating in Minneapolis.
Trevor Fossen was first on the scene. The Joplin resident was on a dirt road nearing the tracks Saturday when he saw ‘a wall of dust’ about 300 feet high.
‘I started looking at that, wondering what it was and then I saw the train had tipped over and derailed,’ said Fossen, who called 911 and started trying to get people out. He called his brother to bring ladders for people who couldn’t get down after exiting through the windows of cars resting on their sides.
‘My first thought was that we were derailing because, to be honest, I have anxiety and I had heard stories about trains derailing,’ Ms Vandervest, from Minneapolis, said.
‘My second thought was that’s crazy. We wouldn’t be derailing. Like, that doesn’t happen.’
She told the newspaper that the car behind hers was tilted, the one behind that was tipped over, and the three cars behind that ‘had completely fallen off the tracks and were detached from the train’.
Speaking from the Liberty County Senior Centre, where some passengers were being taken, Ms Vandervest said it had felt like ‘extreme turbulence on a plane’.
Residents of communities near the crash site quickly mobilized to help.
Chester councillor Rachel Ghekiere said she and others had helped about 50 to 60 passengers who were taken to a school.
‘I went to the school and assisted with water, food, wiping dirt off faces,’ she said.
‘They appeared to be tired, shaken but happy that they were where they were. Some looked more disheveled than others, depending where they were on the train.’
Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s Railway Engineering and Safety Program, said he did not want to speculate but suspected that the derailment stemmed from an issue with the train track or equipment, or a combination of both.
Railways had ‘virtually eliminated’ major derailments by human error after the implementation of positive train control nationwide, Mr Zarembski said.
‘I would be surprised if this was a human-factor derailment,’ he said.
NTSB findings could take months, he added.
Bob Chipkevich, who oversaw railway crash investigations for several years at the NTSB, said the agency would not rule out human error or any other potential causes for now.
‘There are still human performance issues examined by NTSB to be sure that people doing the work are qualified and rested and doing it properly,’ Mr Chipkevich said.
Mr Chipkevich said track conditions had historically been a significant cause of train accidents. He noted that most of the track that Amtrak used was owned by freight railways and depended on those companies for safety maintenance.
Safety expert and former Amtrak conductor says derailment could have been caused by badly maintained tracks or a driver slamming on brakes to avoid running a stop signal
A rail safety consultant has suggested that the train derailment that killed three people and wounded 50 in Montana on Saturday night could have been caused by the driver ‘jamming on’ the locomotive’s breaks to avoid running a stop signal.
Eight cars out of the 10 cars on Amtrak’s Empire Builder 7/27 train derailed as it carried 141 passengers and 16 crew members from Chicago to Seattle, according to the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office.
Two train cars separated and slid down a 30 foot embankment, and police confirmed that three passengers onboard died. As of Sunday afternoon, seven passengers are still hospitalized, but are in stable condition.
It is currently unclear what caused the crash.
Former Amtrak conductor turned safety consultant Michael Callanan told Dailymail.com that there is a ‘distinct possibility’ that sudden braking was a factor, based on the proximity of a stop signal to the site of the crash.
He said another explanation could be ill-maintained tracks.
BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks where the crash occurred, and Amtrak, which owns the train, are looking into the derailment, alongside federal investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Matt Jones, a BNSF Railway spokesman said at a news conference that the track where the accident occurred was last inspected on Thursday.
Per the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, all trains must install ‘Positive Train Control,’ a satellite-controlled system that automatically stops a locomotive before accidents occur.
However, Callanan said that a number of railroads have put off the expensive installations and petitioned government officials for more time.
Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s Railway Engineering and Safety Program, said he didn’t want to speculate but suspected the derailment stemmed from an issue with the train track or equipment, or a combination of both.
Railways have ‘virtually eliminated’ major derailments by human error after the implementation of positive train control nationwide, Zarembski said.
‘I would be surprised if this was a human-factor derailment,’ Zarembski said.
It is unclear whether the Empire Builder 7/27 was outfitted with PTC equipment.
The National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday it is launching a 14-member ‘go team’ to investigate the derailment.
Callanan told MailOnline that the number of agencies involved is one of the elements that will stretch out that investigation, which he said could take up to two years.
‘They’re going to download a black box [that] measures everything – what position the throttle was in, what kind of breaks were put on, how fast he was going,’ Callanan said.
‘They’re going to download the dash cam, they’re going to drug test the whole crew to see if there was any drugs and alcohol involved.’
He said that the National Transportation Safety Board will ‘take that train to a warehouse, piece everything together and test every part of the train – every car, [and the] breaks on every car.’
Witnesses – each person who was riding the train and anyone who can be found that saw the crash from outside the train – will all be interviewed by the agencies.
Meanwhile, during the long-spanning investigation, all of the employees who were manning that train will be ‘taken out of service.’
Amtrak employees have the option to buy into insurance, he said, but most don’t.
He added: ‘Hopefully the employees that did not pay into that have money saved up.’
Amtrak said in a statement Sunday: ‘We are deeply saddened to learn local authorities are now confirming that three people have lost their lives as a result of this accident.’