I-85 Collapse: Three Arrests After Major Fire Under Atlanta Highway

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ATLANTA (CNN) — Three people were arrested Friday (Mar. 31) in connection with a huge fire that caused part of an elevated interstate running through Atlanta to collapse, the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department said.

Fire department spokesman Cortez Stafford said one woman and two men were arrested.

The three are thought to be homeless, Georgia Deputy Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Jay Florence said.
Florence identified one suspect as Basil Eleby who was arrested on suspicion of first-degree criminal damage to property.

Investigators think he started the fire intentionally, Florence said. Eleby is still in jail after being taken into custody. If convicted, he faces one to 10 years in prison.
Sophia Bruner and Barry Thomas face criminal trespassing charges, Florence said.

Drivers in one of the nation’s most congested cities faced a jarring new reality Friday Mar. 31) as they were forced to game out how to get around a collapsed portion of Atlanta’s Interstate 85 — one of the Southeast’s major north-south arteries.

A mysterious fire collapsed part of I-85 northbound Thursday evening — injuring no one — and also damaged the southbound portion, forcing the closure of all five lanes in each direction for the foreseeable future.

The shutdown likely sets the city up for traffic headaches for months after creating navigation hell Thursday with jams that extended five miles or more and stranded motorists for hours.

The closure comes at a sensitive time for a city accustomed to gridlock — with hordes of spring break vacationers poised to drive though the regional hub and the Atlanta Braves set to play a preseason game Friday night in their new stadium northwest of the city.

“I think it’s as serious a transportation crisis as we could have,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said Thursday evening.

• It will take “at least several months” to rebuild the collapsed and otherwise damaged portions of I-85, Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry told reporters Friday afternoon.

• Three sections of northbound I-85 — including the part that collapsed — and three sections of southbound I-85 will have to be replaced, McMurry said. That’s 350 feet of highway — nearly a football field — in each direction, he said. Demolition of these sections started Friday and will last into Monday, McMurry said.

• The cause of the fire isn’t known, McMurry said.

• The fire started in a fenced-in area under the expressway where the state stores construction materials, McMurry said. Those materials include what he first said were PVC pipes but then said they were HDPE — high-density polyethylene — pipes.

• Measuring the traffic impact with that section of I-85 closed, there has been a 50% increase on Interstate 285 that rings the city and a 25 percent increase in traffic on major streets near the closed area, he said.

The fire started Thursday (Mar. 30) evening under I-85 in northeast Atlanta, north of the highway’s split with I-75.
At first, I-85 motorists drove through the smoke, and firefighters fought the flames below. It eventually grew into a massive fireball.

“There was a 40-feet or higher wall of fire. Power lines were falling and arcing heavily and falling in the streets,” Sgt. Cortez Stafford, a spokesman for the Atlanta Fire Department, told CNN.

The elevated span of highway collapsed about 7 p.m. as crews battling the fire got out of danger’s way, fire officials said.

As concrete began falling from under the bridge, firefighters were asked to step back, Stafford said. “Not even two minutes later, the highway fell with a big ‘kaboom.’ (It) knocked our guys back.”

While the highway is normally jammed with cars around that time, there were no fatalities, Reed said.

More than 220,000 cars per day are estimated to drive through that stretch of the interstate.

Officials scrambled to come up with alternate routes and encouraged riders to use public transit.

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