Image: Train derailed
Michael E. Palmer  /  Tuscaloosa News via AP
This aerial view shows a derailed freight train near Demopolis, Ala., on Wednesday. The train, carrying segments of the space shuttle's solid rocket boosters, derailed after a bridge collapsed, authorities said. Six people were reported injured.
updated 5/4/2007 7:34:26 AM ET 2007-05-04T11:34:26

Workers had just finished repairs on a railroad bridge and were watching as the track collapsed under a train hauling pieces of space shuttle rockets, officials said Thursday.

The train, carrying rocket booster segments to Florida that were intended for shuttle launches this year, was the first to go over the bridge after the repairs, and testing wrapped up only moments before the crash, authorities said.

Work was done on the pilings that hold the trestle up over a boggy area and on other parts of the structure, said Mike Williams of Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which owns the train’s operator.

“A number” of railroad workers or contractors were on hand when the derailment occurred at a wooden trestle described as 650 feet long and 10 feet high, said Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration. The work began Sunday after an inspection by the railroad the day before.

“It’s possible here that they did everything in the most responsible manner they could and still something happened,” Flatau said. “Clearly something went wrong here; we just don’t know what.”

Officials have yet to determine the extent of any damage to the rocket parts, said June Malone, a spokeswoman at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. No flight delays are expected, because the maker of the segments has replacements, NASA said.

Federal regulators believe a less-serious derailment days earlier in Kansas was caused by a mechanical problem. The was no apparent link between the two accidents, which occurred with different train lines hauling the shipment, officials said.

Six workers were hurt Wednesday morning in Alabama, one critically, when the train carrying eight huge segments of solid rocket boosters derailed. The train, with its cargo limited to the shuttle shipment, was headed to Kennedy Space Center, and the equipment was meant for launches in October and December.

Slideshow: Cosmic Sightings: From Earth to stars Kyle Herring, a spokesman for NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the space agency has used the track many times over the years without problems and there was no reason to believe the shipment should have been delayed or diverted because of the trestle repairs.

The investigation will try to determine whether the accident was caused by a failure of the wooden trestle or a problem with the ill-fated train, Williams and Flatau said.

The shuttle shipment had a mishap five days before near Bunker Hill, Kan., where two rail car axles came off the tracks while the train was traveling less than 20 mph, said Katherine Trinidad, a NASA spokeswoman in Washington.

The first derailment was caused by an apparent mechanical problem with the train, Flatau said. The train was being operated by another line before Meridian & Bigbee of Meridian, Miss., took the shipment in Mississippi. An investigation continues, but no connection between the two accidents has been found, he said.

It is unusual for two accidents to occur on a trip, Flatau said.

None of the rocket segments was damaged, and no one was hurt in the Kansas accident, Trinidad said. The train resumed its eastward trek in less than six hours.

Two of the injured from the second accident remained hospitalized Thursday, one listed as critical and one fair. All the injured were aboard the train, but NASA, the rocket manufacturer and a spokesman for the train line said none of the injuries was life-threatening.

The segments were being shipped from the manufacturer, ATK Launch Systems of Brigham City, Utah. The train consisted of two engines and 14 cars. Both locomotives, a car carrying attendants, and one car with a booster segment fell on their sides; the other 12 cars remained upright.

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