3 arrested in connection to fire that caused collapse of I-85

A section of US Interstate 85 in north Atlanta collapsed Thursday after a massive fire, local officials confirmed.

ATLANTA, GA (WGCL) — CBS46 has confirmed that three people were arrested in connection to the major fire that caused I-85 to collapse in Atlanta Thursday.

Sophia Broner, Barry Thomas and Basil Eleby were all arrested in the 5 p.m. hour.

Broner and Thomas were charged with trespassing, while Eleby was charged with first-degree criminal damage to property.

Officials say all three people charged are in the Atlanta city jail.

Officials said it will take “several months” to repair the 700-feet of the roadway overpass that fell after a major fire started from currently unknown causes.

MARTA said that despite a 25 percent increase in ridership within hours, their services are handling the spike “extraordinarily well.” They are also offering special commuting services–in direct response to the incident–throughout the end of next week.

GDOT officials warn to “back up your alternate plan with a second alternate plan.” Spending more time to commute is now the “new norm” until the construction is complete.

Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency Thursday night as a result of the fire and resulting collapse. The 2-alarm fire burned Thursday afternoon on I-85 near Georgia 400 in Atlanta.

After the fire burned for about 45 minutes, a segment of the roadway collapsed. Officials confirmed that no one was injured in the fire, though miles of cars were stopped on the bridge just yards from the collapsed section.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing some people getting out of their vehicles and leaving them on the road, opting to walk to nearby areas.

At this point, the northbound lanes are completely shut down and traffic is being diverted onto other roadways. The southbound section of I-85 also sustained fire damage and will need to be replaced. GDOT says the extent of the fire damage requires massive reconstruction to ensure the safety of motorists.

Atlanta Police said the fire burned piles of plastic wiring that is burning under the I-85 overpass near the Lindbergh MARTA station along Piedmont Rd. It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the initial fire to break out.

GDOT said Friday the material belonged to the state and was on state property. Though the material burned was plastic, officials said there was no danger of particles in the air to the public.

Witnesses said they saw people abandoning their vehicles on the roadway and opting to walk.

Latest developments

• 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% increase in traffic on major streets near the closed area, he said.

‘Fell with a big kaboom’

The fire started Thursday 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,” Stafford, the spokesman for Atlanta Fire Rescue, told CNN.

The elevated span of highway collapsed about 7 p.m. Thursday 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, as traffic flow had been halted.

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.

Surreal scenes

Social media users posted surreal images showing motorists — before the collapse — choosing to drive into the black smoke that billowed onto the highway as the fire burned beneath them.

CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin was driving north on I-85 during the evening rush hour when he saw smoke rising from underneath the elevated highway.

Many cars on the left side of the five-lane section barreled through the thick black smoke. They disappeared into the darkness as they drove, he said.

McLaughlin slowly followed the taillights of an SUV through the smoke.

Soon, interstate traffic was stopped and turned around, creating long jams.

What caused the fire?

McMurry, the state transportation boss, said it wasn’t immediately clear what started the fire at the state’s construction-equipment storage area near the bridge.

Gov. Nathan Deal said Thursday that he had heard speculation it was caused by some “PVC products that caught fire.”

McMurry initially said the materials stored under the bridge were PVC pipes but later said they were HDPE — high-density polyethylene — pipes. He said the conduits are used in the “traffic management, cabling, fiber-optic and wire network.”

The material had been stored there “for some time, probably since 2006 or (2007),” McMurry said.

“We’re as eager to learn the cause of this fire as anyone,” he said.

Two fire trucks from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport south of the city rushed to the scene and sprayed foam on the fallen section of roadway and the flames.

Investigators have no evidence the fire is linked to terrorism, and an investigation is underway, the mayor said.

The Environmental Protection Agency took samples of the air and of the water in a nearby creek; results will be available in about two weeks, EPA spokesman Larry Lincoln said.

‘It’s going to take some time’

Authorities worked through the night to access the bridge and ensure the risks from the collapse are contained. Smoke still rose from the site Friday morning.

Most structural materials lose strength when subjected to high temperature, meaning the concrete could have been compromised by the heat, said Georgia Tech professor Reginald DesRoches.

He said it was too early to tell how long it would be for that part of I-85 to reopen but estimated it could be weeks or months.

“It’s going to take some time to get it repaired and to get it back in service,” the governor said, without offering a time frame for reopening.

Not business as usual

MARTA, Atlanta’s rail and bus system, will offer extended service through the weekend.

One school district, in nearby DeKalb County, canceled classes Friday. Schools in Atlanta were open, and city and state offices didn’t open until 10 a.m. Friday.