From the first calls to Atlanta firefighters to the moment the highway collapsed on live television, barely 45 minutes elapsed. If not for quick thinking by state troopers who stopped rush-hour traffic and by fire department commanders who ordered a hurried retreat, heavy casualties would have been all but certain.
When James Shilkett came upon the fire, just one stack of coiled plastic was burning. He was driving from his office in Buckhead to an event at the Ponce City Market in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, waiting through two cycles of a traffic signal on Piedmont Road beneath the interstate. He noticed other drivers staring and gesturing to their left – to the quickly escalating fire. Two police officers stood by, Shilkett said, but firefighters had not yet arrived.
He could tell, he said later, that "if it was not put out quickly, if all the spools caught on fire, it definitely seemed to be dangerous."
It was 6:18 p.m. when Shilkett grabbed his smartphone and snapped a picture. The photo shows the pipes and the fire, the fence and the bent gate, and a small sign warning off intruders.
“STATE PROPERTY. NO TRESPASSING. NO DUMPING.”
‘Oh, my God’
About the time Shilkett drove away from the fire, Leslie O’Connell was getting closer to it.
O’Connell, who lives in Warner Robins, was headed north on I-85, taking her son and two other teenagers to practice with their elite youth-volleyball team in Alpharetta. Shortly after clearing the Downtown Connector, she noticed smoke up ahead.
At first, she thought a truck had burned out its brakes. But the smoke got darker, and then she saw flames. Traffic stopped, stranding O’Connell no more than 20 car lengths from where the flames shot skyward.
Many motorists got out of their cars, and an urgent murmur worked its way back toward O’Connell.
“Car fire – it’s spreading,” she recalled Friday. “Gotta move, gotta back up, gotta go.”
As the teenagers strained out her windows and sun roof to glimpse the fire, O’Connell worried it might spread from car to car. Only by checking Facebook on her phone did she learn the fire was beneath the highway. When she checked again a few minutes later, she saw that a section of the same interstate bridge on which she sat had just caved in.
“Oh, my God,” she said, before posting on Facebook: “I-85 just collapsed and we’re still on the bridge.”
Latess Mayes could not get away, either.
She lives in the Optimist Lofts, just across Piedmont Road from the expressway. From her apartment, she said, she heard a series of explosions – maybe five or six – just before the power went out. She looked outside and saw “a bunch of smoke, lots of fire.”
Already, emergency vehicles blocked Piedmont. She could go nowhere.
Neighbors spread rumors; one person said a car had driven off the expressway and exploded.
"I was scared," Mayes said. "The fire was getting so big and so close."
Less than a quarter-mile away, Ray Stewart stood in his darkened store, Barking Leather, with five customers. At first he thought a gathering thunderstorm had knocked out his power.
Then, “we felt it,” he said. “We felt the booms. Several booms and then a quick poof of fire, and then the fire started to disappear. That’s when we knew the bridge had collapsed.”
‘Couldn’t see a thing’
The Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department’s Station 29 sits beside I-85 on Monroe Drive, 3/10 of a mile from the spot where Piedmont Road runs under the highway.
But at 6:12 p.m., when the first reports came in, Station 29’s firefighters were out on a call, extinguishing another blaze. So a dispatcher summoned firefighters from Station 19 in Virginia-Highland – 2.8 miles away. They arrived at 6:20 p.m., eight minutes later.
Intense flames and smoke were already reaching dangerous levels, Chief Joel Baker said later. At Piedmont Road, the interstate is relatively close to the ground, and it acted like a lid, trapping the heat down low, close to the first firefighters battling the fire. Within minutes, flames reached 40 feet high.
Fire officials sounded a second alarm, and more firefighters and supervisors threaded their way through the stalled traffic toward the scene.
Driving north from downtown, veteran Battalion Chief James McLemore was expecting an apartment fire in one of the new complexes that have sprouted up near I-85. Soon, though, he could tell this was no ordinary fire.
"I'd never seen smoke like that," McLemore said Saturday. "It was completely black."
Along with another battalion chief, Douglas Hatcher, McLemore took command from atop the interstate.
“Couldn’t see a thing,” he said.
But he heard ominous noises – the sound of chunks of concrete breaking off the highway’s support pillars below him.
And through his boots, he could feel increasing heat in the highway pavement.
Something bad, he sensed, was about to happen.
McLemore and Hatcher quickly ordered their firefighters to retreat – fast. Baker said their quick action saved countless lives, because no more than three minutes later, the road came tumbling down.
Assess and blame
It took two specialized fire engines stationed at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to bring the fire under control, covering the collapsed road with the same foam they use to extinguish burning jet fuel.
Then it was time to assess the damage – and to assign blame.
Bridge inspectors and engineers from the Georgia Department of Transportation worked through the night to check the integrity of northbound lanes near the site of the collapse, as well as of the southbound lanes, which also withstood intense heat before the fire was put out.
The damage was plainly visible Friday from Piedmont Road. Large chunks of concrete beams directly above the street were pocked, crumbling and charred black. The state plans to replace 350-foot sections on both sides of the interstate.
DOT Commissioner Russell McMurry announced that decision at a news conference near the collapsed highway Friday afternoon.
After describing the necessary reconstruction, appealing for patience from the public, thanking federal officials for their support, and urging commuters to figure out new routes, McMurry addressed what he called “lingering questions” – what caused the fire and how it could bring down an elevated highway.
The state owns the land, he said, and had securely stored “normal highway construction materials” there for years. “This area is chain-link fenced and locked,” he said, apparently unaware of the barely fettered entry onto the property. A spokeswoman for the DOT did not respond to a message from a reporter on Saturday.
McMurry at first described the material that burned as PVC pipe. Later he clarified that it was conduit made from high-density polyethylene, used to protect fiber-optic cables.
Regardless, he said, although the material was flammable, it was not combustible, meaning it could not catch fire on its own.
“It takes something to cause something like that to burn,” McMurry said.
Officials took no responsibility for storing flammable material in a loosely secured area directly beneath a critical piece of the region’s transportation infrastructure.
They blamed a homeless man.
Late Friday, state investigators arrested Basil Eleby and two others, Barry Thomas and Sophia Brauer, in connection to the fire. Authorities initially misidentified Brauer but confirmed her identity on Saturday.
Investigators say Eleby started the fire and charged him with arson. He is in the Fulton County Jail on a $200,000 bond. Thomas and Brauer were charged with criminal trespass.
Eleby, 39, has been homeless for as long as 15 years and has spent much of that time near the spot where the fire began on Piedmont Road, according to three acquaintances interviewed Saturday. He has been arrested 19 times in Fulton County since 1995, according to jail records, mostly on drug charges.
He had participated in a 12-step program to address his drug addiction and alcoholism but was asked to leave because he was disruptive, the acquaintances said. They asked not to be identified because anonymity is a pillar of the 12-step program.
Allen Dean, who owns a company that clears brush and debris along highways, said he met Eleby about 15 years ago and gave him a job, hoping to intervene in his life on the street. Dean even let Eleby live for a time in his home near Woodstock.
But Eleby stole a child’s bicycle from a neighbor’s house and rode it to Midtown Atlanta – 30 or more miles away. After smoking crack virtually non-stop for three days, Eleby rode the bike back to Woodstock and returned it to its owner, Dean said.
Dean asked him to move out after the incident. “I just couldn’t deal with him.”
Homeless people are a constant presence near I-85’s Piedmont Road overpass, some of them drawn by the same 12-step program that Eleby attended. City officials have tried to reduce the homeless population for years but often have clashed with advocates for the homeless over how to do so.
"Basil is another example," Dean said, "of a system that fails to identify and provide assistance to so many with mental health issues that simply do not have the capacity to help themselves."
“He burned it down, maybe,” Dean said. “But who created that problem?”
On Thursday, according to court records, Eleby met Brauer and Thomas under the interstate about 4 p.m. It is not clear whether they were already acquainted. Brauer asked to smoke crack with Eleby, but he refused, keeping the drugs for himself.
Thomas told investigators that Eleby placed a chair on top of a shopping cart, set it afire and then walked away.
Three hours later, the highway collapsed.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writers Christian Boone, Rosalind Bentley, David Wickert, Tyler Estep, Ryon Horne and Ben Brasch contributed to this article.