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Another train derailed on Tempe bridge one month before collapse, massive fire

According to Union Pacific, a train had derailed 12 rail cars on June 26th, damaging rail and bridge ties. The Tempe Fire Department was called out.

TEMPE, Ariz. — On Wednesday morning, a Tempe bridge partially collapsed and caught fire when a train derailed. It turns out, a train derailed on the same bridge one month ago.

“I like to walk around the Tempe Town Lake area. You're able to socially distance," said Rob Scott.

Scott was on his regular walk around Tempe Town Lake around 10:45 p.m. the night of June 26 when he noticed part of the walking path was closed.

Credit: Rob Scott

"It looked like a high priority type of thing, caution tape," Scott described.

According to Union Pacific, a train had derailed 12 rail cars around 4 p.m., damaging rail and bridge ties. The Tempe Fire Department was called to the scene after a small fire broke out.

Scott witnessed part of the repairs.

“They were definitely working on the bridge. There was debris below," Scott said.

The tracks on the Salt River Union Pacific bridge reopened the morning of June 28 and one month later, another train derailed in that same spot causing a massive fire and partial bridge collapse.

Union Pacific officials told 12 News they inspected the bridge in between derailments on July 9. The I-Team requested a copy of that inspection report but a Federal Railroad Administration spokesperson said according to the FAST Act passed by Congress in 2015, the report can only be requested by an elected or appointed official.

“This wasn’t a bridge that we had identified as problematic," said Dr. Anthony Lamanna of ASU's Del E. Webb School of Construction.

The Salt River Union Pacific bridge was built the same year Arizona became a state - 1912. According to the City of Tempe, three previous bridges in that same location were destroyed by floods. The Tempe History Museum provided photos of the past collapsed bridges.

Credit: Tempe History Museum

“We don’t know what happened. Was it the train that derailed causing the bridge to fail or was it the bridge failure that caused the train to derail?” Lamanna said.

Lamanna said it is too soon to say what caused the collapse but he is curious about the possible past impact to the base of the bridge and said rails are known to buckle in extreme heat.

“I’m not saying that happened here but that’s always a possibility," Lamanna said.

Wednesday's derailed train was carrying lumber, rubber and cyclohexanone. Cyclohexanone is a flammable liquid.

According to federal railroad data, trains were using the Salt River Union Pacific bridge on average twice during the day and twice through the night. 

According to Arizona's Corporation Commission, the derailment is actively under investigation by multiple agencies and Union Pacific has had five derailments this year including Wednesday's.