Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency Thursday night after fire officials extinguished a massive fire on I-85 in Atlanta that led to the collapse of a bridge on the crowded interstate.
The bridge on I-85 northbound just south of Ga. 400 near Piedmont Road collapsed about 7 p.m., Atlanta fire spokesman Sgt. Cortez Stafford confirmed.
No injuries to motorists or first responders were reported.
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Officials said they still don't know how long it will take to fix the bridge, but they agree there is no underestimating the headache that awaits commuters.
"The cork is in the bottle" Department of Public Safety Director Mark McDonough said. "It couldn't have happened at a worse time."
Drivers coming southbound into Atlanta on I-85 will get no further than Cheshire Bridge Road or they can hit the ramp back to I-85 North, McDonough said.
If you're driving north into the city on the connector, you'll have no choice but to take I-75 North at the point where the two interstates split.
Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell R. McMurry said the catastrophic incident significantly affected I-85 and the broader transportation network.
Road closures and alternate routes
- I-85 is closed from I-75/Brookwood split to the North Druid Hills exit.
- Motorists traveling northbound on I-85 from the southside of Atlanta will be diverted to northbound I-75 at Brookwood near 17th Street.
- Motorists traveling southbound on I-85 north of Atlanta will be diverted to northbound on Ga. 400.
- Motorists traveling southbound on Ga. 400 from north of Atlanta will be diverted at Sidney Marcus exit.
- I-285 and I-20 are both open to traffic and are the best alternatives for motorists to utilize if possible.
- Motorists are encouraged to utilize their favorite wayfinding app to help navigate to their destinations.
Mayor Kasim Reed said late Thursday he’d spoken with the FBI “and at this time there’s no evidence of terrorism.”
He said city officials will be working to assess the bridge throughout the night.
“This is as serious a transportation crisis as we could have. The governor has been leading and we have been acting on it,” Reed said. “Our primary concern, first and most important, is that no one has lost their life. And as we stand here right now, we think that’s the situation.”
Stafford said a cause of the fire can’t be determined at this time because inspectors can't get under the bridge due to structural concerns.
"The entire bridge is compromised," Stafford said. "Right now, it's still dangerous to go under there."
Deal said Georgia Department of Transportation inspectors are on the scene and that the construction crew that built the bridge has been contacted to look at the schematics and determine how long it will take to repair.
He said the cause of the fire is not yet known but “the speculation I’ve heard is that there are some PVC products that caught fire.”
Witness James Shilkett was driving by the fire around 6:15 p.m. when he said he saw PVC piping on fire. Shilkett said two police officers were already on the scene and out of their squad car. Another police car arrived within one to two minutes, with fire engines another two or five minutes behind that, he said.
Disruptions, school closings
Spokesman Eric Burton said all MARTA trains are running as normal and have not been affected by the fire.
“MARTA seems like your best bet to get out of the city,” Burton said Thursday night.
Bus lines affected due to the collapse were: 27, 6, 33, 30 and 47. Buses that were delayed were being rerouted to Lindbergh Station.
Atlanta Public Schools will be on normal schedule Friday, but DeKalb County Schools were canceled.
The City of Atlanta government offices and the Municipal Court of Atlanta will have a delayed start of 10 a.m. Friday.
Non-essential DeKalb County government personnel are not required to report to work Friday.
Capt. Mark Perry of the Georgia State Patrol said terrorism is not suspected, but they don't know what started the fire. At first they thought it was a car burning, but later said it could have been something else, Perry said.
Troopers based in Atlanta worked to get cars on the interstate turned around.
Atlanta police spokeswoman Officer Stephanie Brown told Channel 2 Action News that her department was working on a traffic plan for Friday morning.
Hours after the collapse, the air stretching a quarter-mile north of the bridge was still acrid, spreading like a thin, black fog.
All businesses surrounding the site were closed, including Tower Liquors, several popular adult entertainment clubs, shops and restaurants.
The collapse site is near the Orkin pesticide corporate headquarters on Piedmont Road.
Atlanta police on the scene said it could be hours or days before the stretch of Piedmont is open again to traffic because authorities are concerned with potential structural damage.
“We’ve been so busy dealing with making sure the fire was out and that no lives were lost that we haven’t moved to the traffic planning phase,” Reed said earlier Thursday evening. “There’s a team at GDOT that’s now working on that, and I’m confident that the governor will have answers (Friday) morning.”
Carmen Dixon screamed as the heat attacked her car. Flames shot skyward a few feet away as she drove past.
She was on her way back from her job in North Druid Hills processing medical records heading toward Riverdale when she noticed the first sign of trouble about 6:20 p.m.
“I saw a black mass of smoke,” the 21-year-old Georgia State student said.
Dixon trudged through traffic closer to the source of the smoke — and the flames.
“I felt the fire touching me through my window,” she said. “I heard a snap or a crackle noise … I saw the flames rising.”
As the car heated up, her 2-year-old dog named Diego started to freak out.
Michael Brooks, 43, was heading home on I-85 when he saw the smoke.
"I thought it was a terrible wreck. Vehicles stopped suddenly," said Brooks, who works at CNN.
People started getting out of their cars. They said, "the bridge is going to collapse."
Brooks said he sat there for two and a half hours. As for Friday, he said about getting to work, "I guess I'll figure that out some way."
Nicole Allen, Chris Krupa and Jason Shipp were at a Taco Mac on Lindbergh when they noticed everyone was staring out the window taking pictures.
"Usually Piedmont Road is gridlocked," Krupa said. "But it's a ghost town."
All are worried about one thing: how this will affect Friday's commute.
"I'll probably take the side streets," Allen said.
Shipp was hoping for something different:
"Maybe this catastrophe will draw attention to increasing MARTA lines and better transportation infrastructure," he said.
All Rose Diggs wanted to do was get home.
She lives less than a mile from the collapse, but couldn’t get home because Piedmont Road between Garson Drive and Lakeshore Drive was blocked.
"I have a handicap," she said, "and they're saying I have to walk, but it's raining and dark."
GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said the interstate will be closed in both directions “for the foreseeable future.”
The collapse of a major interstate through town is sure to scramble commerce. Companies are contemplating their next moves.
A spokeswoman for Atlanta-based delivery giant UPS said the company’s contingency planners are assessing the I-85 situation “to define our activity, routing.”
While many interstate tractor-trailer drivers use I-285, rather than taking I-85 through the city, the closing of I-85 will certainly push traffic onto other interstates, potentially scrambling traffic there.
Delta Air Lines said it will “work with customers on a case-by-case basis to accommodate them if they’re running late as a result of any ensuing traffic issues.”
The Atlanta-based airline also said it encourages its employees to monitor traffic reports and “use their best judgment in safely commuting to their jobs,” spokesman Morgan Durrant said.
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday evening warned people to allow extra time heading southbound or to take MARTA.
“It’s a massive productivity issue,” said Brian McGowan, a former CEO of Atlanta’s economic development arm and now a principal in the U.S. Public Policy and Regulation practice at law firm Dentons. “You are going to have hundreds or thousands of companies who can’t get their employees to work on time.”
The public sector will also take a blow as tens of thousands of government workers will be affected.
McGowan said the short-term potential losses are substantial. It will disrupt businesses’ supply chains. Families will have to re-think how they travel around the city.
Companies that don't encourage telecommuting should, while others should look to expand their programs or dust off plans that have been on a shelf, McGowan said.
The collapse of the bridge will also shift sales at restaurants as diners choose other places to eat because of convenience.
And like the infamous Snowjam debacle of 2014, McGowan said, “it once again highlights the vulnerability of the Atlanta transportation system.”
Braves game affected?
Jim Wilgus, head of the Cobb County Transportation Department, said the department was waiting for GDOT to fully assess the situation and would offer assistance if asked.
As for the Braves’ exhibition game Friday night at SunTrust Park, Wilgus said there were no changes to the county’s traffic plan so far.
“We’ll have to wait until we get a further assessment from GDOT,” Wilgus said.
During the fire
The flames started underneath the interstate. Fire officials asked drivers in the area to keep their windows closed.
Rachel Kitchens was driving south on I-85 when she saw black smoke ahead of her. Roads hadn't been closed yet so she guessed she was one of the last people to drive through the area before traffic was shut down from both sides.
"The smoke looked like it was coming from straight below us and it was getting steadily heavier," Kitchens said.
Paula Pontes, a resident of the Peninsula at Buckhead, said when her home went dark she thought it was an incoming storm.
“It got dark all of a sudden so I turned on the news to see if it was the rain,” Pontes said.
She said she never heard an explosion and couldn’t see flames, but it smelled like burnt rubber.
“I didn’t panic because I couldn’t see the fire coming,” she said. “It was just smoke. It became night.”
The Georgia Department of Public Health said wind pushed smoke into other areas, but there was “no significant toxicity identified in the smoke.”
Anne Marsden was leaving her office on Ottley Drive next to the Sweetwater Brewery around 6:30 p.m. when she saw the smoke coming from the interstate.
"It was a mess," said Marsden, who runs a marketing business. "Nothing was moving."
She said firefighters were spraying water on a nearby apartment complex to keep the fire from spreading.
Marsden used an alternative route to get to her Buckhead home, but stopped at Houstons on Piedmont to check on several employees who'd gone there. That's when the bridge collapsed.
"Now we are in planning mode via text for how to do business with no access to our office for an unknown period of time," she said.
William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the road collapse will impact thousands of teen girls heading downtown to the Georgia World Congress Center for the Big South National Qualifier volleyball tournament.
About 60,000 people are expected for the event, which runs Friday through Sunday. It kicks off at 8 a.m. Friday and is one of the city’s biggest sports conventions.
The 1,400 teams are staying in 100 hotels from the airport area to Alpharetta or traveling in from nearby cities, Pate said.
— Staff writers David Wickert, Rhonda Cook, Matt Kempner, Scott Trubey, Christian Boone, Marlon Walker, Meris Lutz, Leon Stafford, Kelly Yamanouchi, Rosalind Bentley, Amanda Coyne, Ben Brasch, Jennifer Brett and Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.