Don Varnadoe called the upcoming anniversary trip he was preparing to embark on with his wife the “trip of a lifetime.”
Varnadoe, who worked as a real estate agent in St. Simons Island, Georgia, had been looking forward to it for months, watching train videos at work in anticipation. The couple would be celebrating 50 years of marriage, said Robert Kozlowski, managing broker for Coldwell Banker Access Realty, where Varnadoe worked.
At a sales meeting with his team last week, Varnadoe led a prayer – his usual ritual in those conferences – and added an unexpected note at the end.
“He said Tuesday, ‘Life is short and we just need to live it and we need to tell people how we feel every day,’” Kozlowski said.
Varnadoe, 74, and his wife, Margie, 72, were among the three people who died in the Amtrak Empire Builder train that derailed in rural Montana on Saturday night, just south of the Canadian border.
The roughly 46-hour ride travels from Chicago to Portland/Seattle and offers passengers a chance to “experience the rugged splendor of the American West,” according to Amtrak’s website.
Zach Schneider, a 28-year-old senior software engineer who embarked on the trip with his wife, Rebecca, to visit Portland, was also killed. The two college sweethearts were preparing to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary in November. She was injured in the accident.
“She lost her soul mate and best friend,” said attorney Robert Mongeluzzi, who is representing Rebecca Schneider in a new lawsuit against Amtrak and BNSF Railway, which owns the railroad track where the accident occurred.
Here’s what we know about those who died in the derailment.
Don and Margie Varnadoe
The Varnadoes had lived in St. Simons Island, a small community of roughly 15,000 residents, for nearly five decades.
“The Varnadoes were just one of those special kind of couples in the church that you know have a wonderful heart, a warm heart and cared for everybody,” said Tom Jones, the senior pastor of St. Simons United Methodist Church, which the couple attended. “These were two individuals that you can count on.”
Don Varnadoe loved working in real estate, Kozlowski said, and had been with Coldwell Banker Access Realty for roughly 20 years – working until the day before his trip. He turned into a mentor for some of the younger agents, and when new employees arrived, he helped welcome them and get them acclimated, Kozlowski added.
“He was a staple,” Kozlowski said. “Everybody said, there’s going to be a hole missing and we already feel it.”
He had also served on the local school system’s school board, always pushing for “every kid to have the same opportunities,” Jones, the pastor said. And he was also a member of the church’s finance committee and often served as an usher during services, a position that came naturally because he was so social and outgoing, Jones added.
Margie Varnadoe was a former assistant superintendent of human resources at Glynn County Schools and retired in 2011, according to Brittany Tate, a spokesperson for the school system.
For several years, she led the Stephen Ministry at their church, a group dedicated to helping members of the community who are “hurting or going through difficult times,” the pastor said.
“There she was leading that group and we all need a Stephen Minister right now, is what it amounts to, because we’re all hurting because of this loss,” Jones said.
But despite the busy schedules the couple kept, they always made time for their son and his family, and “never missed a family dinner around the table,” the pastor said.
“They were just genuinely good people and I think their legacy that they would leave behind is for us to do likewise,” Jones added. “To be caring, to take care of one another.”
Schneider was raised in Maryland before going on to attend Southern Illinois University, where he met Rebecca – whom he referred to as the love of his life.
The two settled in Fairview Heights, Illinois, where Schneider most recently worked as a senior software engineer for a financial services payment platform, while his wife works as a physician’s assistant in pain management.
A lifelong Green Bay Packers fan, Schneider would ritualistically watch and support his favorite team with his wife on weekends, according to a biography page provided to CNN by attorneys representing Rebecca Schneider.
“One of Rebecca’s fondest memories is attending her first Packers game with Zach in sub-freezing temperatures and laughing as she slowly watched Zach’s beard freeze to his clothing,” the biography page said.
Schneider loved to give back to his community, coaching debate at a local university, volunteering at an elementary school and teaching children who had limited access to computer resources how to code, according to the bio page.
“Zach and Rebecca had a soft spot for animals,” the biography said. “They routinely fostered kittens until the kittens could be placed into loving homes. Zach also rescued dogs and ensured that the dogs received the medical care and treatment necessary to rehabilitate them until the dogs could be adopted.”
Nearing five years into their marriage, the two were “head over heels in love,” Mongeluzzi, the attorney, said.
They decided to embark on the train trip to visit Portland and watch the scenery that the route promises.
“They were very excited to do it,” Mongeluzzi said. “It was them spending time together as a young couple and seeing our country.”