SAVANNAH, Georgia – Don Varnadoe has spent months watching train travel videos on his desktop in preparation for a special vacation across the country to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary with that of Margie Varnadoe.
He phoned his colleagues on the Georgian coast, where he has sold real estate for decades, from the first leg of their trip on Friday to let them know it was turning into a dream vacation.
“He called the office and said how excited they were,” said Robert Kozlowski, management broker at Coldwell Banker Access Realty in the port city of Brunswick. “They were in Washington, DC, and heading west.”
A day later, the couple died when an Amtrak train they were riding on derailed in the Montana countryside.
They were among three people who died along with a 29-year-old Illinois man named Zachariah Schneider, according to the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office in Montana. Schneider was a software developer and a big fan of the Packers. He was traveling to Oregon with his wife, who survived.
The Amtrak train was traveling just below the speed limit at about 75 mph as it pulled out of the track along a gradual curve, possibly ejecting passengers, U.S. investigators said Monday. 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, carrying 141 passengers and 16 crew, had two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, some toppling onto their side. Residents of the farming community mobilized that day to help injured passengers.
Investigators do not know the cause of the derailment, but they are studying video of the train and another locomotive that crossed the same track just over an hour earlier, the National Transportation Safety vice president said on Monday. Board, Bruce Landsberg. The derailed train also had a black box that records everything that happens on the train, he said. One possibility is a problem with the tracks, possibly due to heat-induced buckling, rail accident experts speculate.
Kozlowski was arriving at church in Georgia on Sunday when he received an SMS warning him of a rumor circulating that tragedy had befallen the Varnadoes. A phone call to a family member confirmed the terrible news that the couple were killed in the derailment.
Everyone in the office knew about the big trip and was excited for the couple. A colleague joked that Don Varnadoe, 74, may have to leave Margie Varnadoe, 72, at home when he struggled with his computer to print out his ticket.
“He said, ‘This is the trip of a lifetime and we are looking forward to it,” recalls Kozlowski, his boss for 18 years.
The Varnados had lived 45 years on St. Simons Island, home to about 15,000 people just over an hour’s drive south of Savannah. Kozlowski said Don Varnadoe liked to tell the story of the arrival of the moving truck on July 4, 1976, the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Margie Varnadoe was retired from the Glynn County public school system, where she had long worked as a teacher and administrator. Her husband has sold real estate for over four decades and has shown no signs of slowing down.
Kozlowski said Don Varnadoe worked every day and often led sales staff in prayer before meetings. His wife was loved in the office, where she often brought flowers, brownies, and other gifts. She put down one last pan of brownies just before leaving for their birthday trip.
“If you want an example of how to treat people, Don and Margie were them,” Kozlowski said. “With their faith and the way they have treated people, they’re in a good position, I think. “