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'A funny, kind, compassionate, intelligent and beautiful man'

  • Zach and Rebecca Schneider.

    Zach and Rebecca Schneider.
    Courtesy of Jeanne Korando/ Brittany Renee Photography

By Renee Trappe
updated: 10/1/2021 3:16 PM

An Elkville native whose husband was among the three people killed in Saturday's train derailment in Montana, has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Amtrak, even as she recovers from her own severe injuries.

The lawsuit tells a heartbreaking tale of Rebecca Schneider (nee Korando), frantically searching for her husband, Zach Schneider, in the wreckage of the Empire Builder passenger train that had been taking 141 riders and 14 crew from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest.

The derailment also killed a couple from Georgia celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and injured at least 50 people.

The document says that about 4 p.m. local time on Saturday, as the train approached and crossed over the BNSF East Buelow switch point near Joplin, Montana, eight of the train's 10 passenger cars suddenly derailed.

The lawsuit says at the time of the derailment, Zach, a 28-year-old software engineer and volunteer debate coach, was in a viewing car, while Rebecca rested in their sleeper car at the end of the train.

The derailment caused the train's final three passenger cars, including the sleeper car where Rebecca was located, to decouple from the rest of the train, the lawsuit says, and the cars were thrown from the tracks, flipping and landing on their sides.

"The viewing car in which Zach was located did not decouple but was launched from the tracks and flipped onto its side," it reads. The lawsuit says Zach died of injuries to his head and body.

"Zach Schneider, was a funny, kind, compassionate, intelligent and beautiful man," Rebecca said in a statement that was released to the Du Quoin Call by her mother, Jeanne Korando of Elkville.

"He was an incredible husband, software developer, debate coach, and friend. He loved board games, bonfires, The Packers and good BBQ (especially from 17th Street). He was fiercely loved by his wife Rebecca, family, friends, and pets, and will be dearly missed."

Rebecca Korando graduated from Elverado High School. According to the suit, she and Zach met at Southern Illinois University, where Zach studied computer science and was a national champion in collegiate parliamentary debate, and Rebecca studied medicine enroute to becoming a Physician's Assistant. They married in 2016.

After graduation the couple moved to Fairview Heights, where Rebecca worked as a PA in pain management and Zach was a software developer and engineer in the tech industry.

The suit says the couple also rescued dogs and fostered kittens. Zach helped coach the debate team at McKendree University in Lebanon and volunteered at a St. Louis grade school, teaching computer coding to children who lacked access to computer resources. And, of course, they followed the Green Bay Packers, Zach's beloved team.

The couple boarded the Empire Builder on Friday (Sept. 24) in Chicago, preparing for the 46-hour trip to the Northwest. The lawsuit vividly describes what happened when the train derailed:

"When the sleeper car derailed and flipped onto its side, Rebecca was thrown about inside the car, sustaining severe injuries as she was forcefully smashed into the interior structures and components of the sleeper car.

"When the sleeper car finally came to rest, Rebecca attempted to climb out of the car but quickly came to the terrifying realization that the door was stuck and she was trapped inside.

"A crew member present in the cab located a sledgehammer that he was able to use to smash open the door and window which allowed Rebecca to climb out of the flipped car where she was helped down to the ground by other passengers.

"After escaping the train car, Rebecca approached the flipped and mangled viewing car where she knew her husband, Zach, was at the time of the derailment. (She) screamed his name over and over, but heard nothing.

"Rebecca was still frantically calling Zach's name when first responders reached her and informed her that her husband was likely dead. She was then taken away from the scene and rushed to the hospital.

"Six hours later, while in the hospital, officials confirmed to Rebecca that her husband, Zach, died in the derailment."

The federal lawsuit accuses Amtrak and the BNSF Railway Company of negligence, and says the accident and death and destruction it caused was "entirely preventable." Moreover, it calls the derailment "another in a long list of devastating and fatal train derailments caused by the negligence and carelessness of Defendants Amtrak and BNSF."

BNSF owns the tracks that the Empire Builder was riding on.

The suit also says that Rebecca sustained "severe and life-altering injuries" when the sleeper car derailed, and that she "suffered and will continue to endure unfathomable grief and emotional and psychological injuries resulting from the death of her husband, Zach."

According to a Crain's Chicago Business story, a spokesman for Amtrak issued a statement: "Amtrak is sorry for Mrs. Schneider's and the Schneider family's loss. We are offering assistance to injured passengers and employees and the families of those who have lost loved ones but are otherwise unable to comment on pending litigation."

Crain's adds BNSF declined to comment, saying it doesn't discuss active litigation.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.

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