A day after a dramatic rush-hour fire crumbled a section of Interstate 85, creating a traffic nightmare sure to last for months, authorities arrested three people allegedly involved in starting the blaze.
The arrests capped a day in which state officials said the interstate, one of the busiest north-south corridors in the eastern United States, would be closed for several months — at least — in both directions near downtown Atlanta. Officials said they will need to replace 350-foot sections on both sides of the highway, each longer than a football field. The closure will force an estimated 250,000 motorists to alter their daily commutes.
Authorities gave few details about the arrests, other than to say all three suspects appeared to be homeless. It is not clear whether they had taken up residence at the site of the fire, under an elevated stretch of the interstate beside Piedmont Road.
The state fire marshal’s office identified those arrested as Basil Eleby, charged with criminal damage to property, a felony, along with Sophia Brauer and Barry Thomas, charged with criminal trespass. Authorities initially misidentified Brauer but later confirmed her name.
“We believe they were together when the fire was set and Eleby is the one who set the fire,” said Jay Florence, a deputy commissioner of the state Department of Insurance, which includes the fire marshal’s office.
Earlier in the day, officials said they had not determined what started the fire, which fed on construction materials stored beneath the interstate. The fire began about 6 p.m. Thursday, rapidly intensifying as police and firefighters closed the highway and nearby roads. By 7 p.m., an elevated section of the northbound lanes had collapsed in a ball of flames and smoke. Amazingly, no one was injured.
President Donald Trump called Gov. Nathan Deal on Friday to offer his “full support,” said Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff. The federal government is releasing $10 million to help pay for repairs, although the full cost is expected to run much higher.
Authorities confirmed the arrests almost exactly 24 hours after the highway collapsed. They would not say what led them to the suspects.
Florence said officials don’t think anyone else was involved in setting the fire, although the investigation will continue. The charges could be “upgraded,” said Glenn Allen, a spokesman for the insurance department.
Florence declined to say how the fire was started. He said the suspects used “available materials” at the site, where large coils of PVC conduit had been stored for years.
Little is known about the suspects. Eleby has been arrested 19 times in Fulton County over the past 22 years, according to jail records, mostly for drug offenses, as well as for criminal trespass and assault. His most recent arrest was for cocaine trafficking in 2014. The disposition of the charge is not clear.
Florence said investigators believe Eleby, Brauer and Thomas are homeless, and the area where the fire began — a shadowy expanse running beneath the elevated highway — is known as a haven for people seeking shelter. A chain link fence enclosed the site, but it seems to have been easily compromised. Shopping carts could often be seen abandoned inside the fence.
Whether the suspects intended to cause such extensive damage is not clear, officials said.
Before the arrests, attention turned Friday to the piles of supplies stashed beneath the highway. Russell McMurray, commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, said his agency owns the property and the material — some of it high-density plastic — had been there as long as 10 or 11 years. He said, however, that it was not combustible and posed no threat in itself.
“It’s no different than having a plastic cup in your cupboard,” McMurray said. “It needs something to ignite.”
Atlanta Fire Chief Joel Baker said he wasn’t sure how hot the fire would have to be to cause the bridge collapse, but said the stored material helped it get there.
“The amount of plastic and other materials, there was a lot,” Baker said. “I don’t know how much tonnage was involved. But due to the material involved, it generated a whole lot of heat to cause that to happen.”
He said chunks of concrete were flying off the highway supports before the collapse, prompting firefighters to retreat to safety, almost certainly preventing casualties.
Fire experts said that extinguishing a fire that is fueled by plastics can be difficult because they are composed of highly flammable products.
Large quantities of these materials “do not respond well to water alone,” said Ken Willette, an expert at the Massachusetts-based National Fire Protection Association.
Fire officials brought the flames under control only after bringing in specialized trucks from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport designed to deal with burning airplanes. The trucks spray a smothering blanket of foam across a large distance — one of most effective ways to combat a fire fueled by highly flammable material, Willette said.
“We saw the need and got them there,” said Atlanta Fire Department spokesman Sgt. Cortez Stafford.
Such equipment is generally kept only at airports.
“There’s no reason for us to have a truck like this in Buckhead,” Stafford said.
“We had a unique situation with this fire,” he said. “They did as much as they could — without putting their lives in any more danger – to put the fire out.”
Although demolition of the damaged roadway began just hours after the fire was put out, the city’s residents will feel the pain of the closure for “several months at least,” McMurray of the DOT said.
On Friday, many turned to MARTA. The transit system’s chief, Keith Parker, said ridership was up 25 percent.
Eric Canfield, who lives near Piedmont Road and normally drives to work, woke up 45 minutes early anxious about his commute.
“I was curious how everything was going to be impacted because the fire was so big and it was close to me,” he said. “When I walked to the bus station, Piedmont was already backed all the way up past the park, and this is at 7 o’clock in the morning.”
But Canfield, who works for a home construction company, was in good spirits despite the extra challenges.
“Luckily, living in Midtown you can walk a lot of places and you have access to public transportation.”
Some surface streets had to be closed, at least temporarily, and those that were open near the fire scene were gridlocked Friday. Southbound traffic from GA 400 is being diverted west onto Sidney Marcus Boulevard. From there it is directed south onto Piedmont, and from Piedmont onto the Buford Connector, leading to I-85 south.
Col. Mark McDonough, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, said motorists should get used to a new normal.
“For 250,000 people a day, driving this part of the road is part of their routine,” McDonough said. “That routine has come to an end.”
-Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Christian Boone, Dan Klepal, Rosalind Bentley and Carrie Teegardin contributed to this article.