Salvage work cited as probable cause of fire that burned Gascondy bridge ties

By: 
Roxie Murphy

Cause of a Nov. 14 fire that scorched 50 to 100 ties on the 1,775-foot long Gascondy Pratt-truss-design train bridge over the Gasconade River has been ruled undetermined by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Missouri State Fire Marshal’s Office.

DPS Communications Director Mike O’Connell said, “the work of the contractor crew could not be eliminated as the cause of the fire.”

The contractors O’Connell is referring to are A&K Railroad Materials, Inc., working to clear the former Rock Island Railroad, currently Missouri Central Railroad (MCRR), owned by Ameren. The tracks and ties must be cleared prior to the end of November so Ameren may offer the former railroad as a hiking and biking trail to Missouri State Parks.

O’Connell said DPS must use the elimination process in cases like this one. 

“It is known there was an Ameren Missouri contractor that was pulling rails on the bridge the day of the fire and using a cutting torch to cut the rail spikes from the ties,” O’Connell said. “The crew was working in the middle portion of the bridge, and the fire damage was in the same area where they were working.”

Volunteer firemen from the Belle and Freeburg fire departments and Osage County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the 8:30 p.m. call at the bridge, located between Belle and Freeburg, about 35 miles out of Jefferson City. 

Osage County Sheriff’s Maj. Ed Fowler said emergency personnel responded in four-wheel drive trucks to either side of the bridge, but the fire was located in the middle. He was confident that the fire had to have started earlier in the day while the contractor was working. 

“The embers slipped into one of the railroad ties, and the fire happened that night,” Fowler said. “It might have started during the day and at some point got hot enough to start a fire.”

Belle Fire Chief Dwight Francis said his crew was at the scene, but unable to safely reach the blaze. 

“At the time it was causing no danger,” Francis said. “We let it burn and the rain through the night put it out.”

Fowler said there were no witnesses to the fire. He assisted the Fire Marshal’s Office with the investigation, including using a drone, to assess the damage. 

“There was not a tremendous amount of damage and Ameren believes the bridge is still structurally sound,” Fowler said. “It was not as bad as the pictures made it look.”

Greg Harris, executive director of the Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc., group which is promoting the rail corridor as a hiking and bike trail, said he’d spoken with Ameren representatives and they believe the bridge remains structurally sound.

“The structure generally seems alright, although it hasn’t been inspected,” said Harris. He expressed relief and great appreciation to all the volunteer firemen and emergency services personnel who responded to the scene.

He called the bridge “an incredible structure” and a “best jewel, or beautiful feature, along the Rock Island line.”

State Parks survey

A survey seeking public comment on the proposed trail was released in October. The report, published online at www.mostateparks.com/rockislandlinecorridor, included 8,685 comments on 419 pages compiled into a page document file. The letter sent by the city of Owensville is included in a compilation of communities and organizations expressing support, or opposition, to the project.

Harris said he met Monday afternoon with the deputy director of Missouri State Parks. “They are still doing their due diligence and looking at what it will mean to the communities along the trail,” said Harris.

Giving Tuesday is Nov. 28

Harris said MORIT received an anonymous $5,000 pledge on Monday from one of the group’s board members to match dollar-for-dollar donations given in the “Giving Tuesday” campaign on Tuesday, Nov. 28.

According to a post on MORIT’s Facebook page, “Celebrated on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) and the widely recognized shopping events Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday kicks off the charitable season, when many focus on their holiday and end-of-year giving.”

Details are found on www.givingtuesday.org, said Harris. You may make your donation at the MORIT site directly by visiting www.rockislandtrail.org/donate/.

With the pledge on Monday, MORIT has received pledges of up to $12,000 which will be matched with donations received by Nov. 28. Others pledging funds include the Wm. A. Kerr Foundation and the Springfield, Mo., based F&H Foods in honor of Wilbur Feagan. Those donating $25 or more will receive a Rock Island Trail t-shirt.

The donation Monday was intended to “bring attention to that bridge,” said Harris of the structure built in 1902.

—With additional reporting by Dave Marner of The Republican’s staff

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