Tempe Fire: Workers injured during train derailment cleanup effort over Tempe Town Lake

Tempe Fire officials say two workers have suffered injuries during cleanup efforts over Tempe Town Lake.

Officials made the announcement during a news conference on the afternoon of July 31, days after a 102-car Union Pacific Railroad freight train traveling from Tucson to Phoenix derailed July 29 as it traveled on a century-old bridge that spans the man-made Tempe Town Lake, setting the bridge ablaze and partially collapsing the structure.

Assistant fire chief: Workers splashed by chemicals

According to Assistant Fire Chief Andrea Glass, the incident happened at around 1:36 p.m., during an offloading process for a tank car containing the hazardous material cyclohexanone. Contracted workers were splashed with the material as they were disconnecting a hose.

"The worker had gone to disconnect the hose from the tank car, and they heard a pop or a loud boom and a vapor was released, and the liquid splashed their face," said Assistant Chief Glass, during the news conference.

Assistant Chief Glass said one worker was splashed in the face, while the other worker was splashed in the chest area. Decontamination effort followed, and fire crews were called to the scene. The leak stopped by around 2:30 p.m., but no more than 10 gallons of the chemical were released into a dirt area around the tank.

One of the workers, identified by Assistant Chief Glass as a 52-year-old man, was taken to the hospital with serious, but non-life threatening injuries. The other worker was treated on scene, but refused to be taken to the hospital.

Light Rail operation was affected for some time, but normal service resumed at around 3:45 p.m. on July 31, according to Valley Metro officials.

Earlier in the week, authorities said crews were getting ready to begin a long cleanup process on July 30.

Officials have said that at leat 100 contract workers are involved in the cleanup effort.

Some cars were carrying toxic chemical

Two of the tank cars were carrying cyclohexanone, a pale and oily liquid that is toxic and flammable.

Originally, Union Pacific Railroad said none of the cars were leaking, but on Wednesday night, officials confirmed there was a leak. It appeared to be going into a dry river bed and not into the river.

"It is important to note that the leak of cyclohexanone from a derailed car has been stopped and contained since the car was up-righted by crews overnight. That action largely mitigates any hazardous materials issues at the site," stated City of Tempe officials.

According to the Tempe Fire Department, 500 gallons leaked from one of the rail cars. It has now been contained. Tempe city officials say the cyclohexanone leaked into a city-operated storm drain that led to a try riverbed on the west side of the Tempe Town Lake dam.

"Testing is underway to determine if there are any environmental concerns," read a portion of a statement from the City of Tempe.

Union Pacific: As many as 10 cars derailed

The impressive views that were seen after 6 a.m. on July 29 meant the story garnered international attention.

Union Pacific spokesman Tim McMahan said as many as 10 train cars derailed and the south side of the bridge then collapsed and caught fire.

At the time of the derailment, authorities say no one was injured. One firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation in the multi-alarm fire.

Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir said at a news conference that “there is nothing to suggest” that the derailment was a criminal act.

"Our intention is to fix this bridge. It’s important to the Phoenix area. We will go in there and make our assessments and move forward fixing this bridge," said a Union Pacific spokesperson.

Bridge the scene of prior derailment

On June 26, there was a derailment at this same spot on the bridge. It took two days for crews to make repairs. Union Pacific said they conducted an annual inspection on July 9.

Union Pacific officials said 12 cars derailed that time. Tempe officials said the bridge “was found to be in good standing.”

FOX 10 asked for the inspection report or at the very least to be told what it uncovered. Union Pacific said they've handed it over to the National Transportation Safety Board.

An NTSB official stated they are still in the fact-finding phase of their investigation and that it will be a "much much longer before they determine a cause."

ASU expert speaks out on bride collapse

Tony Lamanna, the program chair of the Del E. Webb School of Construction at Arizona State University, says the age of the bridge, a collision event, and the fire could all be factors in its collapse.

"Long metal tracks do occasionally buckle under extreme heat," said Lamanna.

Lamanna looks at the transition from the track to the bridge, saying stiffness changes.

"There have been historical problems -- I’m not saying with this bridge -- but with railroad bridges in general, of that approach transitioning too quickly," said Lamanna.

The bridge was 108 years old. and Lamanna says there is a chance the bridge will have to be rebuilt.

"There's a very good chance that the whole thing will have to be replaced," said Lamanna.

Businesses await reopening of Tempe Town Lake

According to officials with the City of Tempe on July 30, Tempe Town Lake and Tempe Beach Park will remain closed, and all lake activities have been cancelled until further notice.

Meanwhile, businesses in the area are eagerly awaiting the reopening of the lake.

Heath Porretta and Lyndi Symons, who own a watersport rental business in the area, knew everything was about to change on the morning of July 29.

"I knew that we're definitely going to be hustling and grinding the next few weeks," said Porretta.

"I saw the fire trucks and everything," said Symons. "We realized it was not safe to have people out here."

Over the last few weeks, the paddleboard and kayak business was starting to take off, and in July, they had more than a thousand customers. Now, the phone calls for rentals are filled with questions.

"Of course people want to know when it's going to open," said Symons. "I don’t have an answer for them."

"It’s disappointing, but hopefully we’ll get together, the city will get together, and we’ll get back out," said Symons.

Porretta and Symons stress their business is still open. People can rent their boards and kayaks and take them to nearby lakes. Their main business in Tempe Town Lake, however, is dried up for now.

"Well, we’ve been through COVID-19, and this is nothing that we can’t handle," said Porretta.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Continuing Coverage


Rail bridge over Tempe Town Lake partially collapses following train derailment and fire

Tempe Fire Department officials say the derailment happened around 6 a.m. on July 29 and involved a Union Pacific train. At least 90 firefighters responded to the scene. No injuries were reported.