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Train derails, causing fire and partial Tempe Town Lake bridge collapse

Posted at 6:37 AM, Jul 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-30 20:39:21-04

TEMPE, AZ — A Union Pacific train hauling chemicals, lumber, and other materials derailed and caught fire early Wednesday morning while crossing a bridge over Tempe Town Lake, which caused a portion of the bridge to collapse.

Watch Thursday's briefing with Tempe officials in the player below.

At least one of the railcars that collapsed with the bridge into a bed next to Tempe Town Lake was hauling cyclohexane, a highly flammable chemical that is used to make nylon or used as a paint thinner.

Another was hauling a rubber material, Tim McMahan, a spokesperson for Union Pacific said in an email.

During an afternoon press briefing, Tempe Fire Chief Greg Ruiz said one of the cars was leaking cyclohexane and that crews were working on a solution to stop the leak. He said the chemical was not leaking into Tempe Town Lake.

The City of Tempe said in an updated news release that the chemical was actually leaking into a storm drain, which "disperses into the riverbed on the west side of the dam." Testing is underway in the area, the release said. No other train cars were leaking materials.

"It is unknown what, if any, impacts the derailment will have on wildlife habitats in the riverbed and surrounding riparian areas," the city's news release said.

On Thursday in a joint statement, both Tempe police and Tempe fire said the leak had been contained and that there was no immediate threat to the general public.

More than 90 firefighters from the Tempe Fire Department and other nearby agencies responded to the southern portion of Tempe Town Lake early Wednesday where they found several train cars on fire. Flames could be seen running the length of the bridge, sending dark clouds of smoke billowing into the air near Tempe Beach Park.

Several firetrucks were seen spraying water on the flames for several hours Wednesday morning, while a fireboat was helping to spray water onto the flames and remnants of the fire from the lake.

PHOTOS: Train derailment, bridge collapse at Tempe Town Lake
READ MORE: Closures, restrictions due to train derailment

None of the train's crew were injured in the derailment or fire, Union Pacific said. One person was treated for smoke inhalation and a firefighter was sent to the hospital for dehydration, Tempe Fire Chief Greg Ruiz said. The firefighter has been released from the hospital.

As a result of the investigation, several roadways near Tempe Town Lake, including portions of the Loop 202 Freeway, have remained closed throughout much of the day.

Tempe Beach Park and all of its activities, including boating, are closed until further notice, a spokesperson for the City of Tempe said.

Valley Metro has also terminated its eastbound service at 38th Street and Washington and westbound at Smith-Martin and Apache. It used buses to re-route passengers between those two stops, operators said in a tweet.

The light rail does not use the bridge that collapsed. The track where the bridge collapsed is mostly used for cargo trains, McMahan said.

The cause of the derailment remains under investigation, officials said.

Investigators with the Federal Railroad Administration have been sent to the derailment site to "start a preliminary investigation," a statement said. "Further updates will be provided at a later time," the FRA released in a statement.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Union Pacific officials confirmed on June 26, 2020, one of its trails hauling 12 railcars derailed during the afternoon hours. Rail and bridge ties were damaged, the spokesperson said. The track reopened two days later. No other information was released.

People should expect investigators and emergency officials to be in the area for a while.