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40 years after a Livingston train derailment evacuated thousands, one business owner says he never left

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LIVINGSTON - Wednesday marks the 40th anniversary of a train derailment that forced thousands out of their home, but one business owner never left.

Early on the morning of September 28th, 1982, nearly 40 train cars derailed near Livingston. 

“I got a phone call at about 4:30 in the a.m.," said Jerry Cutrer, who's owned and operated G & J's Drive Inn since its establishment in 1966. 

"A fella' called me and said they had a train derail. It exploded."

Black smoke filled the Livingston skies as horrifying flames took over the parts of the railroad track not far from the high school. 

At the time, Livingston Police Chief Randy Dufrene, was just a teen, but he recalls the moments he watched train cars burn. 

“We made a block off of Circle Drive onto 190, right across from where the derailment actually happened," Dufrene said. "The fire was so hot, we could actually feel the heat from inside the car.”

That fire burned for nearly two weeks as hazardous chemicals, seeped into the ground.

It's something that forced more than 3,000 residents out of town for weeks and even months. 

“It was one of the worst disasters to ever happen,” Dufrene went on to say.

An array of cancerous chemicals including phosphorus, tetraethyl lead, vinyl chloride, fuel oil, lube oil, and polyethylene would remain in the surrounding ground for years to follow. 

It's something that left a large portion of Highway 190 barricaded for about a year. Still, that couldn't stop Jerry Cutrer from serving members of the community. 

“The whole road was closed from one end of town to the other end of town," Cutrer said. "It was barricaded out, we were barricaded out, but I still kept the business open and let people through the barricades.”

Dufrene, a friend of Cutrer's, visits G & J's often.

“Jerry saw a need to keep his drive-in open not only for his business, but the community needed something to come back to.”

Cutrer says the Drive Inn had its own obstacles to overcome from the derailment.

“It was hard for us," Cutrer said. "We had a lot of cleanup, it did a lot of damage to the building, knocked the glass out, had to throw a lot away."

Since then, G & J's has been restored, and chemicals in the ground have been cleared. It took health monitoring and the use of a counteractive chemical used to neutralize the hazardous material. 

Still, Cutrer and Dufrene say the memories of the disastrous train derailment live on in the town of Livingston. 

Dufrene, reflected on what could have happened: “I think it's great how the community came back together, we could have easily been wiped out.”

"All of a sudden, something like this happens, it just shows you how fragile we are," Cutrer said.


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