TUOLUMNE TRESTLE FIRE
Around 2:30 PM on June 9, 2001 the first radio calls were heard concerning a vegetation fire along the Tuolumne River just south of downtown Modesto. Ted Benson was in his office at the Modesto Bee when a report came over the scanner: "The fire has gone into the railroad trestle on 7th. Street and there's a large amount of smoke."
As Mr. Benson saw it...
"A large amount of smoke was the understatement of the year. A pall of black was boiling into the air seemingly a block from the newspaper office. And I knew at first glance that the cloud's location was all wrong for the former Southern Pacific trestle adjoining 7th Street.
"I'd like to say I was surprised, but considering the fate of the TS trestle in recent years, the fire was no shock. The railroad stopped using the span in March 2000 when local power began tying up at Rogers station in south Modesto. The last freight train over the bridge had run in November 1999. With the trains finally off 9th Street, the trestle had become an attractive nuisance and a structure destined for removal with the development of a regional park along the river's floodplain. I had fully expected to see the bridge torn down over the summer. Now, a fire of suspicious origin was hastening the plans for removal."
Trestle Fire 01 Benson 60901"The first fire call came at 2:31PM--I was on the scene by 2:40. Parking a block from the entrance to the floodplain, I worked my way through a good-sized crowd of sightseers. My first images of the blaze were made about 2:45PM. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the fate of the bridge."
Trestle Fire 02 Benson 60901"Close to 300 feet of the 1.636 foot structure were already engulfed in flames. Mumbling a few words about sick bastards getting a rush out of history being destroyed, I climbed back up to street level at the north end of the trestle to shoot an angle I had covered many times when trains were using the bridge. I figured I'd never get this view again."
Trestle Fire 03 Benson 60901"As luck had it, I'd walked right into the command post for the Modesto Fire Department. After listening to the firefighters plan their attack on the blaze, I got a few shots of Jerardo Avila laying hose over the bank before scrambling back down into the floodplain for the remainder of my stay at the scene."
Trestle Fire 04 Benson 60901"A northwest wind was blowing about 10-15MPH, adding oxygen to the creosote-fueled blaze that was marching steadily toward 9th Street. Talk about hot! The fire was creating it's own wind and despite being upwind out of harm's way, I couldn't get within 200 feet of the blaze." .
Trestle Fire 05 Benson 60901"I shot a number of long shots and details as the flames worked their beautiful dance of death on the trestle."
Trestle Fire 06 Benson 60901"At last, the firefighters had an attack point set up and firefighter Mark Gonzales began playing a monitor on the blaze, shooting a mixture of water and Class A foam on the head of the fire under the direction of MFD Captain Hugo Patino. At this point, the fire had been raging close to an hour. At least half of the trestle was involved."
"The firefighters, with a lot of mutual aid from surrounding districts, had things pretty well contained as soon as they got water on the blaze, but it was obvious that the trestle was a goner. I made my way out to the north bank of the river, about a quarter mile from the beginning of the floodplain, and watched in awe as the stringers began falling away. By chance, I had positioned myself opposite what seemed to be the ignition point for the fire. It was 3:50PM and just a matter of time before the old girl came crashing down."
Trestle Fire 07 Benson 60901"A Modesto firefighter walked out to my position a a couple of minutes later. I figured he'd come to ask me to move, but not so--like me, he was trying to determine when the bridge would fall and where it might go first. He concluded, along with me, that it would break from south to north."
Trestle Fire 08 Benson 60901"Suddenly, a horrendous crash at the far end of the blaze told us the collapse was coming in the opposite direction. She came down in fiery domino pattern at 4:03PM, erupting into one last burst of flame as the deck hit the ground."
Trestle Fire 09 Benson 60901"With the trestle's collapse, I walked back up to the north end of the span, shooting a few mop up shots and pausing to bum a bottle of water off the fire crew before heading back to the office."
Trestle Fire 10 Benson 60901"A trio of firefighters from Oakdale had been directed to move to the east side of the trestle and get in close on the remaining fire in the deck. I went over with them, getting a nice "brothers under the bridge" vertical shot and following that up with my favorite of the day..."
Trestle Fire 11 Benson 60901"OFD's Dave Peterson and partner Rick Morgan (red helmet) playing a stream of foam into the wind and creating an image that reminded me of a mid-winter fire fight in Canada."
"It was 4:23PM as I stepped back over the west side of the trestle... It was time to head back to the Bee and download!
"Union Pacific wasted no time cleaning up in the aftermath of the blaze. Unbeknownst to yours truly, a demolition crew went to work Sunday morning on the remaining few hundred feet on the north end of the trestle. By sundown on June 10, only the south end of the span and the actual river crossing (on steel piles) remained in place. All that remained of the rest of the elegant span were several piles of kindling."
The Tidewater Southern's crossing of the Tuolumne River was built about 1915 -1916 as part of the railroad's extension to Turlock and Hilmar. It stretched 1636 feet, spanning the Tuolumne River and a flood channel. The trestle was never electrified. The Tidewater's overhead extended no further south than C Street, just two short blocks from the north end of the span.
The trestle was one of the best known photo locations along the railroad.
My thanks to Ted Benson for the gracious use of his text and photographs.