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Freight train derails over Tempe Town Lake, part of bridge collapses

The calls to 911 poured in shortly after 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning:

A 95-car Union Pacific freight train making its way across an iconic rail bridge over Tempe Town Lake had derailed, causing a massive fire and partial collapse of a more than 100-year-old bridge. 

More than 90 firefighters were called to the scene, where thick smoke billowed into the air, partially blocking the intense Arizona sun. Walkers, joggers and bikers along the man-made lake stopped to stare in disbelief and take cell phone videos.

At a news conference later that day, Tempe Fire Chief Greg Ruiz said no one was injured in the accident. One firefighter was transported to the hospital for dehydration and later released. 

 "We’re very fortunate," he said. "This was a very dangerous event."

The cause of the accident is under investigation, and the sequence of events was still unclear Wednesday evening as to what occurred first. 

Tim McMahan, a Union Pacific Railroad spokesman, said the freight train derailed with eight to 10 cars catching fire. The bridge's south side collapsed, and the cars fell into an empty park below.

National Transportation Safety Board will be investigating the derailment and is in the fact-gathering stage, said Terry Williams, a spokesman. The federal agency investigates every civil aviation accident in the United States as well as significant accidents for other modes of transportation. 

"We are still in the very early stages of this investigation," he said. "We would not be able to comment on anything that may have caused this accident."

The Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates railroad crossings in the state, sent a hazmat inspector, track inspector and a mechanical inspector to the accident on Wednesday, spokesman Nick Debus said. 

The FBI will also be involved in the investigation, said Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir, adding that there is nothing early on that indicates the derailment was criminal. 

Tempe Fire Department spokesman Brandon Siebert said the derailment may have led to the bridge collapse and the fire. Debris was seen falling into the lake, though no derailed train cars were in the lake. 

Several train cars were carrying lumber while others contained hazardous materials. 

"We will have some residual fire for a while,” Siebert said. 

McMahan, the Union Pacific spokesman, said two tank cars that derailed contained cyclohexanone, a colorless industrial chemical that is used as a solvent and in metal degreasing. Another car contained a rubber material, he said.

Union Pacific said early Wednesday that the cars were not leaking, but Tempe officials at an afternoon news conference said there was a hazardous leak, and there was no timeframe to contain it.

Fire Chief Ruiz said the focus of the operation as of right now is to contain hazardous chemical leak of cyclohexanone. The chemical is not leaking into the lake, he said.

Firefighters focused their efforts on the fireand debris at the south end of the bridge, as train cars were overhanging Rio Salado Parkway. A firefighting boat also was in the lake helping with the effort.

Crews worked to contain the fire and prevent it from spreading north. The fire’s position on a bridge above water brought extra challenges. Fire officials said they were not worried about a potential explosion because there were not any pressurized containers onboard, she said.

The train's conductor was being treated for smoke inhalation.

Fire officials asked bystanders to move away from the scene in case more of the bridge collapsed, sending waves toward the shore.

Tempe Mayor Corey Woods also asked people to stay away from the area.

“It’s a very fluid situation, we need to let the crews do their work,” Woods said. He explained that it’s not a good idea for people to be at the fire both from a traffic and health standpoint, with the fire releasing carcinogens into the air.

The public should expect the area to be restricted until further notice, the mayor said. No time was given for when it might reopen.

“We want to give these crews ample time to do the job. It’s not about us setting any kind of arbitrary timeline. ... It’s about the work being done correctly,” he said.

Woods said it was unclear how or why the incident happened, as well as whether the age of the bridge played a part in its partial collapse.

Derailment described as 'traumatic'

The man-made Tempe Town Lake attracts many morning walkers and runners. 

Angela Lentino was running her daily route along Tempe Beach Park when she saw smoke.

She was among dozens of bystanders along the lake who watched the efforts by Tempe firefighters to control the fire on the bridge.

She called the scene “traumatic.”

The Salt River Union Pacific Bridge was built in 1912 and survived as floods destroyed the previous three truss bridges constructed at the same location. The bridge is primarily used by cargo trains.

Seksit Thongmak, 32, often goes running near Tempe Town Lake. He was out early Wednesday to beat the heat and saw the smoke when he got home — then he went back to the lake to watch the fire.

Thongmak, a part-time truck driver, said he’s shocked by the derailment and wondered how much it will cost to rebuild the bridge and reroute trains.

Transportation impacted

Roads were restricted near Town Lake and west of downtown.  

Loop 101 ramps to Loop 202 westbound were closed because of the train derailment until around 1:20 p.m., the Arizona Department of Public Safety tweeted.

Valley Metro was rerouting light rail at Mill Avenue and Third Street and 50th and Washington streets, the agency announced about 6:30 a.m. on Twitter. Buses were being assembled to ferry passengers around the incident, according to Valley Metro.

The buses would pick up passengers at 38th and Washington streets and at Smith Martin and Apache Boulevard and transport them around the bridge closure, the agency said. 

All Tempe Town Lake boating activities and classes were canceled because of the train derailment.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey released a statement Wednesday morning, saying the state will provide "any and all resources and assistance necessary to aid Tempe."

He said the state's public safety, transportation and environmental quality agencies are working with local responders.

"We’ll continue to monitor this situation closely and make all support available," the statement said. 

Town Lake home to variety of wildlife

Tempe Town Lake and the surrounding riparian areas are home to a variety of wildlife, including beavers, foxes, turtles and rabbits. It is also habitat for raptors, including eagles and osprey, as well as wading birds such as herons and cormorants.

Arizona Game and Fish spokesperson Amy Burnett said it was too early to tell if any wildlife would be affected by the derailment. She cautioned the best thing people can do if they come across a distressed animal is to leave it to the experts at one of the two major wildlife rescue organizations in the Valley. 

“When it comes to any kind of natural disaster, such as fires or droughts, people assume that the animals need help, that we need to give them food and water,” she said. However, “that can backfire and put people in danger and put the animals in danger. If you’re an animal lover, the best thing you can do is not to feed the wildlife but to leave it to the experts."

Game and Fish does not have an animal intake, but Burnett suggested that anyone who finds a bird, reptile or small mammal in distress go to the website LibertyWildlife.org.

Anyone who encounters a larger mammal in distress should contact the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center at 480-471-9109 or go to SouthwestWildlife.org.

Reporters Richard Ruelas, BrieAnna Frank, Helen Wieffering, Ryan Rand and John D'Anna contributed to this story.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.