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I-85 bridge collapse: Georgia DOT seeks to prevent a repeat

A year after a colossal fire fueled by construction materials destroyed a section of I-85 in Atlanta and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of commuters, Georgia officials say they’re doing everything they can to ensure it never happens again.

They’ve surveyed state highways to make sure no combustible material lurks beneath. They’ve notified other states about the details of the fire so they can protect their own highways. And they’re cooperating with ongoing federal and state investigations that could yield new rules for storing construction materials like the ones that fed the I-85 fire.

A aerial view of the portion of I-85 that collapsed during a massive fire on March 30, 2017. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said the agency will revise some policies when those reports are released in the coming weeks. But he said the agency has already changed the way it stores such material as a precaution.

“Quite simply, our policy will say not to store flammable or combustible material under bridges,” McMurry told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week.

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If that seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, it wasn’t obvious to GDOT before a fire shut down one of the busiest highways into Atlanta last March 30.

LEARN MORE: PHOTOS FROM THE 2017 COLLAPSE

The blaze allegedly was set by a homeless man beneath I-85 near Piedmont Road. It spread to high-density plastic conduit GDOT had stored under the bridge for years.

The spectacular fire destroyed 350 feet of highway in both directions. Its aftermath alternately confounded and amazed metro Atlanta for weeks.

Traffic – already awful – became nearly unbearable as commuters sought alternative routes to work. They tried everything from MARTA to a variety of short-cuts that just made traffic worse on other highways and local roads.

A large fire that caused an overpass on Interstate 85 to collapse burns in Atlanta on March 30, 2017. (WSB-TV via AP) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Carmen Dixon still hasn’t driven past the spot where she felt the heat from flames shooting skyward next to her car. The ensuing construction caused her to take Peachtree Street from her home in Riverdale to her job in North Druid Hills job processing medical records.

“At the time, I was in shock because I’d never seen that much fire before up close,” she said.

‘It was an act of arson’

Even as it made traveling miserable, the reconstruction effort captivated the region. With GDOT offering a $3.1 million incentive to get the work done quickly, contractor C.W. Matthews worked 24-hours a day to rebuild the stretch of highway.

Using “accelerated construction” techniques and expensive quick-curing concrete, the contractor was able to complete the work in just six weeks – a full month ahead of schedule.

The recent collapse of a pedestrian bridge at Florida International University has raised questions about accelerated construction. But GDOT has assured the public that the I-85 bridge and others completed with similar techniques are safe.

An October 2017 inspection of the new bridge found no deficiencies, according to GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale.

Before the blaze was completely extinguished, questions swirled about the cause of the fire – and who was to blame.

6/16/17 - Atlanta, GA - Basil Eleby takes his seat at the defense table before his case is called. Eleby, the once-homeless man accused to setting the fire that brought down a section of Interstate 85, appears in court for a status hearing. The state plans to file a new indictment to more accurately depict what happened during the incident, and make some changes to the charges against Eleby. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM (Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com)

At the time, GDOT said it was common practice to store construction materials under highway bridges – though the AJC found several states that prohibit the practice. The agency also noted it had secured the materials behind a locked gate, though the newspaper found evidence the gate was hardly secure.

The homeless man who allegedly set the fire, Basil Eleby, was charged with arson. But in December his case was transferred to Fulton County’s Behavioral Health Treatment Court. If Eleby completes a mental health court program, which will take about 18 months, the charges against him will be dropped.

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board is reviewing the storage practices that contributed to the fire. That could lead to new rules for storing materials under highways.

The state fire marshal also is reviewing GDOT’s storage practices and is expected to release its recommendations after the NTSB releases its findings.

McMurry said the ultimate blame for the bridge collapse lies with Eleby.

“It was an act of arson,” he said. “But if the material wasn’t there, obviously it wouldn’t have happened.”

Despite questions about its own role in the blaze, GDOT has won widespread praise for its handling of the bridge reconstruction. And the State Transportation Board rewarded McMurry with a $100,000 raise last summer.

The Interstate 85 bridge collapse is probably the biggest Atlanta traffic story of 2017. AJC file photo (For the AJC)

McMurry said GDOT no longer stores construction material under highways. That change also applies to other materials, like construction barricades.

“[The fire] gave us a bigger awareness of potential risk, which has driven us to make sure we don’t have those kind of things out there,” he said.

Staff writers Ben Brasch and Becca Godwin contributed to this report

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