Gridlock Guy: When I-285 became the acid trip no one wanted

A huge chemical spill response from Atlanta Fire and GDOT shuts down I-285/northbound at Highway 166 in Southwest Atlanta on December 7, 2023. Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter

Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter

Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter

A huge chemical spill response from Atlanta Fire and GDOT shuts down I-285/northbound at Highway 166 in Southwest Atlanta on December 7, 2023. Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter

An innocuous truck stall on I-285/northbound (Inner Loop) just north of Highway 166/Langford Parkway (Exit 5) in the 3 p.m. hour on Thursday, December 7th, was anything but small. It morphed later into an hours-long freeway closure for a chemical spill cleanup. And the mess was completely avoidable.

After the two car-carrier-sized behemoths stopped for a few minutes in the left lane and then left, there was mangled metal debris on the left shoulder and fluid in all lanes. Cars spread that fluid further across the lanes, but the substance did not slow traffic.

Then a HERO unit showed up and blocked two left lanes after 4 p.m., for a reason unknown to the WSB Traffic Team and me at the time. This is when traffic really began to jam.

But when AFD came and blocked the entire freeway after 5:30 p.m., this went from a heightened problem to a major mess.

We issued a RED ALERT for the full freeway closure, thinking (and hoping) the blockage would last just long enough for the firefighters to wash down the lanes.

When we arrived in the WSB Skycopter and saw more than a dozen fire units on scene, we knew this was going to fester.

We soon learned that the responders were trying to clear what was then thought to be sulfuric acid from the travel lanes and that two HERO operators who had been exposed to the toxic fluid were transported to Grady Memorial Hospital as a precaution. Thankfully, they were treated and are okay.

HAZMAT units arrived on the scene soon after the Skycopter did. Their response may have been quicker, had the responders known what they had been dealing with earlier.

“One thing that made this scenario complex was the fact that the materials fell off — we believe — a carrier. Typically a carrier operator would be present on scene to identify the load,” GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale told the AJC and 95.5 WSB. But whoever lost the load was long gone.

Was the offending transporter indeed one or both of those initial trucks that stopped two hours before in the left lane? As of this writing, that is unknown.

“When cargo is labeled appropriately and the carrier is present, all (HERO) operators are trained to respond to HAZMAT events accordingly. We serve as force multipliers for all responding agencies,” Dale said.

Dale said HERO Operators carry emergency response guides and receive regular training for events like these.

Those tasked with confronting this traffic rarity had to treat it as if it was the worst scenario. Acid could harm responders and was thought to have done so. It could damage the road, the surrounding vegetation, or the water supply. And then there is any motorist that could have driven through it.

Because responders did not initially know what the substance was, HAZMAT did not respond until two hours after the liquid slicked the lanes. And when they arrived, I-285 stayed shut down until after 1 a.m.

This caused a tremendous jam back over nine miles, at the nadir of this closure. The delays on I-285 wreaked havoc on I-85 in both directions near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Many used I-85/northbound to head into Downtown Atlanta, thus creating quite the bottleneck north of the airport and into town.

The negligence of whoever lost that load caused a jam that did not need to happen. If they had remained on scene to help identify what was splashed across the asphalt, the response would have been quicker.

While the Atlanta Fire Department has not confirmed this, there is indication that what they thought was acid may have been something far less toxic.

So the delayed, heavy response may have been an accidental overreaction.

The scare. The gridlock. The potential injuries. Much of this could have been avoided, had the transporter tasked with the responsibility of labeling, securing, and carrying their load had done their job.

Studies of nuclear meltdowns have shown that catastrophes often occur because multiple failsafes go wrong. While this I-285 closure in a busy Atlanta rush hour and into the night is not as nearly infamous or tragic as Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, several mistakes caused it. And most of those centered on whoever carried this mystery substance and allowed it to fall loose and unlabeled onto an Atlanta freeway during rush hour.

Thankfully, no one was hurt on what may be the worst acid trip in history. But many people’s plans, if not minds, were altered.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. Download the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App to hear reports from the WSB Traffic Team automatically when you drive near trouble spots. Contact him at