BRIDGMAN — Few of us stop in the course of our day to think about the sacrifices made by law enforcement officers and their families – especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Now there is a place in Bridgman to reflect on that service, at the exact place where a Michigan State Police trooper put his life on the line to keep the community safe.
A bench and a plaque were dedicated Thursday honoring Trooper Allan Peterson, who died in 1981 as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals released during a train derailment in Bridgman. His widow and one of his daughters attended.
Troopers take to the road every day feeling invincible, said state police Captain Michael Brown, at the ceremony that began on the exact date and time, Aug. 29 at 8:12 a.m., that Peterson died of a massive heart attack due to his exposure.
“You have to feel invincible, because you don’t know what the next call is going to be,” Brown said.
That was the attitude that Peterson and his fellow officers from the New Buffalo post likely carried the morning of Aug. 7, 1981, when a C&O freight train derailed around 5 a.m. near downtown Bridgman businesses and many homes where people lay sleeping.
One of the cars that left the track was carrying fluorosulfonic acid, an odorless, acidic liquid that is highly corrosive to metals and bodily tissue. A pipe ruptured, sending out a white plume of gas. About 3,200 gallons of the acid, which turns to vapor when exposed to air, were reported to have leaked. Trees in the area were defoliated, and around 2,000 people were evacuated, according to news reports.
It was before the days of gas masks and hazmat suits. Peterson was assigned to a spot about 100 yards from the wreck, to keep motorists, media and onlookers away from the scene. He spent 18 hours at the wreck. Troopers exposed to the gas reported dizziness, stomach aches and diarrhea, but those symptoms were gone a day or so later, according to a Herald-Palladium article.
DuPont Chemical officials, at the time, described the acid as “toxic, but not deadly.”
Peterson’s widow, Christine Peterson Evans, said he didn’t complain about the fumes when he returned to their home in Three Oaks.
“When he got home, he was very tired and exhausted,” she recalled.
On Aug. 29, he woke up at home having a severe coughing spasm. He was rushed to a hospital in Michigan City, Ind., but died on the way. An autopsy later determined that he had died from heart failure due to hardening of the arteries. He was 37 and left behind two daughters.
He was the 34th Michigan State Police trooper to die in the line of duty, although it took 10 years for the state to acknowledge that his death was related to the accident.
Daughter Trudi Peterson was 14 when her father died.
“I only had him for 14 years, but I’m grateful for the 14 years that I had him,” she said of the father she remembers as “strong, but sensitive. He was a great guy.”
“He loved his community,” Christine Peterson Evans said. “He loved doing things for people. You never saw him without a smile on his face.”
“And he made a mean spaghetti sauce,” she added, a recipe he sadly took with him.
Peterson had joined the state police in 1968 and served at the Paw Paw post before being transferred to New Buffalo. He also had worked at posts in Bay City, Ithica and Brighton.
Roy Turbiett, who attended the ceremony, was a rookie when Peterson became his first regular partner.
“He showed me the ropes,” Turbiett said. He remembered Peterson as someone “who didn’t take things too seriously, with a pretty good sense of humor.”
Another colleague, Gary Bland, who worked with Peterson at the Brighton post, also attended the event.
He said it was a mystery to people who had been at the scene of the train accident and chemical spill that Peterson’s death wasn’t initially ruled as service-related.
“I heard from people that there wasn’t a cat or dog, or a flea or a fly, left alive” in the zone, Bland said. “It was obvious to the other troopers that something was amiss.”
The Berrien County medical examiner at that time stated that state laboratory officials said that “there are no tests available to confirm whether there was any connection” between Peterson’s death and the train derailment.
It wasn’t until 1991 that it was agreed that Peterson’s death came from his actions in the line of duty.
His widow, who later remarried and now lives in Southern California, said it was a couple of years after that determination that she learned from Peterson’s former partner that the decision had been reversed.
Daughter Trudi, who lives in Illinois, said she didn’t find out until 2001 when her father was honored at a ceremony in Lansing at the state police memorial. Peterson also is recognized at the Berrien County Law Enforcement Memorial in St. Joseph.
The 35th anniversary of Peterson’s death was recognized in 2016 at the Niles Michigan State Police post, with the family in attendance.
MSP Lt. Melinda Logan, assistant commander of the Niles post, organized this latest memorial for Peterson. Carson Wood Specialities fashioned the bench with the dates of Peterson’s birth and death carved into it.
Logan said it is important for families to get some recognition and closure for their loss.
“This way their loved one is remembered forever,” Logan said.
Commander Michael Brown noted that many summer visitors come to Bridgman, and some young person eating an ice cream cone might sit on the bench and read about the life of Trooper Peterson.
“One of them might be inspired to serve,” Brown said.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak