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In lawsuit, wife of Fairview Heights man killed on Amtrak train details their experience

 Zach Schneider, 28, was among the three people killed when an Amtrak passenger train derailed in Montana over the weekend.
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Zach Schneider, 28, was among the three people killed when an Amtrak passenger train derailed in Montana over the weekend.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

A Fairview Heights woman whose husband died when an Amtrak train the pair were traveling on derailed last weekend is suing the company, calling her husband’s death a “preventable tragedy.”

A wrongful death lawsuit was filed in Chicago on Tuesday on behalf of Rebecca Schneider and her husband Zach Schneider by a Philadelphia-based law firm, according to court records. Zach Schneider was killed when the Amtrak train derailed while traveling through Montana.

The couple lived in Fairview Heights, where Zach worked as a software engineer. He was one of three people who died in the crash while dozens of others, including is wife, were injured.

The westbound Empire Builder was en route from Chicago to Seattle when it left the tracks about 4 p.m. Saturday near Joplin, a town of about 200. There were 141 passengers and 16 crew members aboard the train. Two locomotives and 10 cars made up the train, eight of which derailed, Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said.

Schneider and a Georgia couple, Margie and Don Varnadoe, were pronounced dead at the scene of the crash, according to the sheriff’s department. Others were hospitalized.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.

Schneider’s lawsuit alleges that Amtrak and BNSF Railway, who is also named in the suit, had “an obligation to prevent any trains from traveling in their tracks unless defendants could ensure that the tracks were safe.”

The complaint says operators of an east-bound BNSF freight train that traveled over the same stretch of track about 80 minutes prior to the passenger derailment should have noticed that the steel rails had buckled and warned Amtrak.

“The investigation of this tragedy is at its early stages, however, upon information and belief, Empire Builder Train 7/27 derailed as a result of defective and/or poorly maintained railway track ...” the lawsuit states.

It also blames “systematic failures” of policies intended to inspect and maintain the track. It goes on to detail other derailments, including the crash of Amtrak Empire Builder running the same Chicago-to-Portland route on the same stretch of Montana track in 1988.

“Trains should not derail,” Attorney Robert J. Mongeluzzi told the Washington Post. “The passengers of those trains have no control whatsoever regarding the safety of their journey. And they put their lives in the hands of the companies that operate trains and the railroad companies who own and maintain the tracks. It is clear, without question, that something went wrong and horribly wrong to kill three people.”

In response to the lawsuit, according to The Washington Post report, Amtrak stated: “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.” BNSF would not comment on the litigation, according to the Post report.

Suit describes derailment, Zach’s death

The suit goes on to describe Rebecca Schneider’s injuries as severe and “life-altering” and describes her experience during the derailment.

According to the filing, Zach Schneider was in the viewing car while Rebecca was in the sleeper car, the last car of the train, at the time of the derailment.

When the viewing car derailed and was thrown from the tracks, the suit alleges Zach Schneider sustained “excruciating and ultimately fatal injuries” to his body and head as he was tossed around the car, “slamming into metal seats within the passenger compartment.”

Rebecca Schneider also sustained “severe injuries” when the sleeper car derailed and came to rest on its side, the suit states. Trapped inside, she was later was freed by a crew member who used a sledge hammer to break open a door. She was helped to the ground by other passengers.

She then approached the viewing car and called out her husband’s name without getting a response.

First responders rushed her to the hospital, where her husband’s death was confirmed about six hours later, the complaint states.

‘An incredible husband’

On Monday, Schneider issued a statement on her husband’s death.

“Zach Schneider was a funny, kind, compassionate, intelligent, and beautiful man,” she said. “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, family, friends, and pets, and will be dearly missed.”

A GoFundMe account launched to aid Zach’s funeral costs met and exceeded organizers’ $20,000 goal within the first 24 hours online.

Kavahn Mansouri is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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