Atlanta highway collapse snarls traffic; fire investigated

ATLANTA (AP) - Three people were arrested Friday in connection with a raging fire that collapsed an elevated portion of Interstate 85 in Atlanta and shut down the heavily traveled route through the heart of the city.

On Thursday evening, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for Fulton County.

Smoke billows from a section of an overpass that collapsed from a large fire on Interstate 85 in Atlanta, Thursday, March 30, 2017.

The interstate, which carries 250,000 cars a day, is a major thoroughfare for traffic heading north and south through Atlanta.

The Georgia Department of Transportation announced Friday that 700 feet of I-85 (350 feet southbound and 350 feet northbound) will be completely removed and replaced to fix the damage caused by Thursday's fire.

The transportation crisis comes at a awful time, said Col. Mark McDonough of Georgia's Department of Public Safety.

The blaze broke out Thursday afternoon in an area used to store construction materials, equipment and supplies, sending flames and smoke high into the air.

He said repairs will take months but declined to be more specific.

The impact of the collapse was very much in evidence Friday morning.

WABE's Lisa George tells NPR's Newscast unit, "What appear to have been plastic pipes stored under the highway caught fire; no one knows how yet".

Government offices in Atlanta set a delayed opening for 10 a.m. on Friday to give people extra time to get to work.

McMurry said bridge inspectors had determined that the southbound lanes of I-85 had also been damaged by the fire and would need to remain closed for the near future.

At that point, he said, a fire department incident commander "made the call to back everyone up". Authorities were still working to determine how the fire started.

However, the site was secured and the piping material is non-combustible, McMurry said.

Many motorists found themselves stranded on the highway once the bridge collapsed. If your goal is to get into Midtown or Piedmont Road, exit I-85/I-75 before the split and take surface streets, like Peachtree Road to Beverly Road to Montgomery Ferry Drive to Monroe Drive. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has already ruled out terrorism, saying, "We've spoken to the special agent in charge of Federal Bureau of Investigation, there is no evidence this is related to terrorism".

Most structural materials lose strength when subjected to high temperature, meaning the concrete could have been compromised by the heat, said Reginald DesRoches, a professor at Georgia Tech.

"We told all of our construction engineers to start inspecting to make sure we don't have any issues here in Florida", said Ron Tittle, spokesman for the FDOT.

MARTA, Atlanta's rail and bus system, will offer extended service through the weekend taking some of the burden off residents.

He said it is too early to say how long it will take to fix the highway.

Because of the damage to the key interstate, many commuters in some of Atlanta's densely populated northern suburbs will likely be forced to find alternate routes or ride public transit for weeks or even months.

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.

  • Julie Sanders