by Russ Bynum | The Associated Press
Savannah, Ga. Don Vernado spent months watching videos about train trips on his office computer in preparation for a special cross-country vacation to celebrate his and Margie Vernado’s 50th wedding anniversary.
He called his coworkers in coastal Georgia, where he sold real estate for decades, on the first leg of his journey Friday to tell them it was turning into a dream vacation.
“They called the office and said how excited they were,” said Robert Kozlowski, managing broker at Coldwell Banker Access Realty in Port City Brunswick. “They were in Washington, DC, and headed west.”
A day later, the couple died after an Amtrak train derailed in rural Montana.
They were among three people who died along with 28-year-old Illinois man Zacharias Schneider, according to the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office in Montana. Schneider was a software developer and a big fan of the Green Bay Packers. He was traveling to Oregon with his wife, Rebecca Schneider, who survived and filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Amtrak and BNSF Railway.
US investigators said Monday that the Amtrak train was going under the speed limit of about 75 mph (121 kph) when it slowly veered off track along the curve, possibly knocking out passengers. An Amtrak Empire Builder that was traveling from Chicago to Seattle crashed on Saturday afternoon near Joplin, a city of about 200 near the Canadian border.
The train, carrying 141 passengers and 16 crew members, had two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, some of which were tilted on their sides. The residents of the farm community had gathered that day to help the injured passengers.
National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman Bruce Landsberg said on Monday that investigators do not know the cause of the derailment, but they are studying video from the train and another locomotive that ran on the same track an hour earlier. He said that the derailed train also had a black box which records everything that happens in the train. One possibility is a problem with the tracks, perhaps from heat-induced buckling, rail accident experts speculate.
Kozlowski was arriving at a Georgia church on Sunday when he received a text message warning him about a rumor that a tragedy had occurred in Vernado. A phone call to a family member confirmed the horrifying 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 coworker joked that 74-year-old Don Vernado may have to leave 72-year-old Margie Vernado at home after she had difficulty printing out tickets from her computer.
“He said, ‘This is our journey of a lifetime and we are very much looking forward to it,'” recalls his boss, Kozlowski, 18.
Vernado lived for 45 years on St. Simons Island, home to about 15,000 people about an hour’s drive south of Savannah. Kozlowski said Don Vernado loved telling the story of how the moving truck came about on July 4, 1976—the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Margie Vernado was retired from the Glynn County public school system, where she had long worked as a teacher and an administrator. Her husband sold real estate for more than four decades, and showed no signs of slowing down.
Kozlowski said Don Vernado worked every day and often led sales staff in prayer before meetings. His wife was a sweetheart in the office, where she often brought flowers, brownies, and other gifts. He dropped one last pan of brownies just before leaving on their anniversary trip.
“If you want an example of how people behave, Don and Margie were they,” Kozlowski said. “With his confidence and the way he treated people, he’s in a good place, I think.”
The lawsuit filed by Rebecca Schneider, who was also injured in the derailment, acknowledged that the investigation is in its early stages, but argued that the train operator failed to respond because of the derailment.
The lawsuit states that shortly before the derailment, Zacharias Schneider left him in the sleeping car and went to sit in the watching car, where he was “horrifyingly crippled” and killed. The lawsuit states that the couple, who raised kittens while waiting for adoption and rescue dogs, met at Southern Illinois University and were married for nearly five years.
“Sadly, Amtrak and BNSF’s failures to meet their security responsibilities turned what was supposed to be a happy holiday into a tragic one,” his attorney, Jeffrey P. Goodman, said in a news release.
Amtrak and BNSF Railway officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.
Associated Press writers Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Montana, and Don Babwin in Chicago contributed to this report.