3 in custody in connection with I-85 fire, bridge collapse

Atlanta firefighters put out a smoldering fire Friday before crews began demolition work following the I-85 bridge collapse. JOHN SPINK  / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Atlanta firefighters put out a smoldering fire Friday before crews began demolition work following the I-85 bridge collapse. JOHN SPINK  / JSPINK@AJC.COM

State investigators arrested three people Friday in connection with a fire that caused the collapse of a heavily traveled section of I-85.

Jay Florence, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Insurance, which includes the fire marshal’s office, identified the three as: Basil Eleby, charged with criminal damage to property; Sophia Bruner, charged with criminal trespass; and Barry Thomas, charged with criminal trespass.

“We believe they were together when the fire was set and Eleby is the one who set the fire,” Florence said.

Eleby, 39, has been arrested 19 times since 1995, mostly on drug offenses, according to Fulton County jail records. He was last arrested in 2014 in Fulton County for the sale and trafficking of cocaine.

Basil Eleby (Fulton County Sheriff’s Office)

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Authorities gave few details about how they identified the suspects. However, Florence and Glenn Allen, an insurance department spokesman, said investigators filed the charges after interrogating the three Friday afternoon. All three were taken to the Fulton County jail.

Florence said officials do not believe anyone else was involved in setting the fire, which quickly engulfed construction materials stored beneath the interstate at Piedmont Road. Allen said the charges could be “upgraded” as investigators develop more evidence.

Florence declined to say how the fire was started. However, he said the suspects used “available materials” at the site.

All three may have been homeless, Florence said, although it is not clear whether they had lived at the site beneath the highway.

Officals late Friday still did not know how or why the fire may have started.

The aftermath

The day after I-85 collapsed amid a massive fire and triggered closures on both sides of the interstate, Atlanta commuters learned that repairs are expected to take several months and that they should expect long-term closures.

And the work — demolition and cleanup at the site just south of Ga. 400 — began in earnest Friday.

Though there were no injuries in the collapse Thursday, it means a section of the busy interstate that roughly 243,000 vehicles traveled on daily is now out of service.

I-85 will likely will be shut down for several months. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

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“This is a dynamic situation, and we’re learning as much as we can as time unfolds,” Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said during a news conference Friday at the fire site.

Officials suspected the blaze started when PVC products stored under I-85 caught fire.

“We are as eager as anybody to find out what caused this,” McMurry said.

Still, McMurry didn't attribute the fire to the surplus construction material being stored there.

He said the material was a high-density plastic conduit used for cabling and fiber optic wire networks. He said GDOT was trying to get a fix on exactly how long the material had been there, and suggested it could be as long as 11 years.

But he described it as non-combustible and said it’s not uncommon for states to store materials under bridges.

Officials look over the rubble from the I-85 collapse Friday. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

That material doesn’t ignite on its own, McMurry said.

“It’s no different than having a plastic cup in your cupboard ... needs something to ignite it,” he said.

But photos from Google Maps show the site was clear of any stored material in July 2011. The materials first show up in Google Maps photos in April 2012 and appear to be untouched through the most recent photo taken in November 2016.

The work ahead

Gov. Nathan Deal said despite coordinated state and federal efforts, “this will be a long process.”

Each bridge beam must be “cast, poured, tested, transported and individually installed.”

Approximately six sections and 700 feet of the roadway — 350 feet northbound and 350 feet southbound — will be removed and replaced, including support columns, according to GDOT. Demolition started Friday and will continue into Monday.

The good news is Georgia won’t be left with the repair bill itself.

The federal government will chip in $10 million for temporary repairs, U.S. Rep. John Lewis told Channel 2 Action News. The state and federal governments will split the cost of a permanent fix.

Later Friday, President Donald Trump called the governor to approve federal disaster assistance through the Federal Highway Administration. Deal had declared a state of emergency Thursday night.

Fire crews continue to battle smoking debris at the site of the I-85 collapse Friday. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

About the roads

Georgia Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mark McDonough said commuters are going to have to adjust their schedules and find alternate routes to work.

"That's why we built 285, y'all," he said.

The key areas:

-I-85 South is closed at the Ga. 400 northbound ramp, and traffic is being forced onto Ga. 400.

-Ga. 400 southbound is closed at Sidney Marcus Boulevard. The Ga. 400 ramp to I-85 North is open.

-Traffic is being forced off the Downtown Connector to take I-75 North at the Brookwood split.

-Traffic on I-75 South can’t take the ramp to the I-85 North exit.

-There is no access to I-85 South from Chamblee Tucker, Shallowford, Clairmont or North Druid Hills roads.

-Access to Piedmont Road was limited near the collapse.

-West Peachtree Street to the Buford Spring Connector Northbound and Piedmont Circle to the Buford Spring Connector Northbound have reopened.

Crews began breaking up portions of I-85 Friday. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

Plan ahead

Officials tried to cushion the blow of heavy traffic with delayed starts for some government employees.

The start time for city of Atlanta and Fulton County government workers was pushed back to 10 a.m., and DeKalb County schools closed a day early for spring break.

Still, delays continued for hours early Friday. More were expected with the Braves’ exhibition game against the New York Yankees happening Friday night at SunTrust Park. But so far, traffic to the stadium had been light during the typical rush hour.


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Officials recommended people opt out of driving and take public transportation.

Since the interstate collapse, there has been a 25 percent surge in MARTA ridership, and with the surge, added services, MARTA CEO Keith Parker said.

The route from downtown Atlanta to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is about 17 minutes via MARTA, Parker said.

Alternate routes

-Through the Brookhaven and North Druid Hills areas, use Peachtree Road, Briarcliff Road and North Druid Hills Road, the Traffic Center reported.

-On the interstates, take I-85 South from Gwinnett County to I-285 South at Spaghetti Junction. Then use I-20 West into downtown Atlanta.

-Take I-285 westbound across to the north side to get to Hartsfield-Jackson.

— Staff writers David Wickert, Greg Bluestein and Dan Klepal contributed to this article.

Channel 2's Jason Durden uses new technology to pinpoint where the bridge collapse happened.

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