Railcars sat sideways, some overturned along the tracks, as flames engulfed the cars, dozens with hazardous chemicals. Many of the residents evacuated with only the clothes on their backs. Vinyl chloride leaked and burned, filling the skies with toxic plumes of black smoke.

While the story parallels East Palestine’s devastating toxic train derailment on February 3, the events described occurred more than four decades ago in the small town of Livingston, Louisiana.

Livingston, which sits in Livingston Parish - a southern equivalent to a county, sits approximately 30 miles east of Baton Rouge – and has its own derailment tragedy, which mirrors in many respects to what happened during the train derailment in East Palestine more than a month ago.

Livingston, Louisiana


It was a slightly cooler than normal morning on September 28, 1982, at 5:12 am when the quiet southern town’s life was changed for decades.

21 News Anchor Derek Steyer traveled to Louisiawhoo speak with the people wo lived through the disaster and to look at the similarities between these communities that sit more than 1,000 miles apart, now connected by their toxic tales.

In this three-part series, 21 News will examine what happened in Livingston, how the community dealt with the disaster, and its aftermath.


43 train cars derailed, and 27 contained hazardous or toxic materials, and 20 tanker cars were breached, and the toxic gases rose into the air. The fire caused an explosion in two of the tanker cars that flew hundreds of feet.

Nearby residents had to flee for their lives.

By the time it was over, more than 19 homes or buildings were destroyed or severely damaged. More than 200,000 gallons of toxic chemicals were absorbed into the ground according to the final 1984 NTSB Railroad Accident Report.

In 1982, Phil Womack had just accepted a reporter position with the Denham Springs Livington Parish News. He was heading out for one last vacation before starting his new position when he came across the derailment. James Minton was an editor with the same newspaper and joined 21 News at the Livingston derailment site.

Phil Womack, James Minton


"The whole area was just lit up, it was just yellow light, and all the way up in front of the town hall which is a block off it was just like daylight almost..." Womack said. Womack turned his car around and started to cover the derailment.

"You could see a large plume of smoke all the way out to the interstate which is what, about two or three miles from here... added Minton.

"It was like that for days," Womack remembered.

Although no one was killed by the derailment, the smoke from the derailed hazardous tanker cars burned for nearly two weeks, and chemicals leached into the ground.

"One of the things they did that I thought was pretty smart, was they make everybody leave," Minton said.

In total, 3,000 people in a 5-mile radius around Livington were evacuated for nearly two weeks.


Both men said when they heard about the derailment in East Palestine, it brought back memories.

"People did complain about shortness of breath ... irritated eyes," Womack said.

While the cause of the 1982 derailment was similar in many aspects to East Palestine's, theirs wasn't a mechanical failure, it was human error by employees.

Walking along the rail tracks today, the scars from 4 decades ago are barely visible.

But it wasn't a quick fix. Remediation and testing of the water and soil continued for 34 years and was finally given an all-clear in April of 2016.

The former newspaper editor and reporter both stated they were shocked that Norfolk Southern was running trains along the rails where the derailment happened only days prior.

"I understand it’s a main rail line up there, but this place was closed for months, I mean they were doing all kinds of testing on the soil," Womack said.

While there are more than 1,000 train derailments every year in the U.S. according to Federal Railroad Administration safety data, the derailment in both Livingston and East Palestine shared the hazardous materials that spilled and burned.


When Judge Bruce Bennett of the 21st Judicial District in Louisiana retired in 2017 after 28 years years on the bench, he told the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper, “I’ve had this [derailment] case for my entire career.”

The retired judge spoke of the stigma that went along with the derailment and the environmental disaster that followed.

Bennett told 21 News upon learning of the East Palestine accident, "...All of the residents locally and local folks thought that it was eerily similar to what happened here.

Retired Judge Bruce Bennett


"I know the anguish and the problems that they suffered... being exposed to the toxic fumes and the subsequent burn-offs and breathing the substances, it’s the worry and fear that people think about and haunts them for years following an event like that... People actually live with fear for a long time afterward, we saw that here in Livingston," Bennett said.

"East Palestine needs to look long term, this is not an event that will be over with when the case gets resolved, this is not something that will be resolved in the next couple of years," Bennett said. "They need to think long term in terms of 15, 20, 25 maybe even 30 years, as we did."

In the end, a $39 million settlement was reached with the railroad, but the memories and fear linger.

This is the first of a three-part series looking at the toxic derailment in 1982, how the small town dealt with the disaster, and the aftermath for the small town and its residents.