Atlanta investigators have arrested three people they say are connected to a Thursday fire that resulted in the collapse of an elevated span of Interstate 85, a major thoroughfare through the city that connects five states.
Basil Eleby is charged with first-degree criminal damage to property, a felony. Sophia Bruner and Barry Thomas were charged with criminal trespass, although investigators said more charges could be pending.
The fire was “maliciously set,” Sgt. Cortez Stafford, a spokesman for the Atlanta Fire Department, told The Washington Post. Investigators spoke with the suspects Friday night but have not released more details on what the trio was doing before the fire broke out. Investigators believe Eleby set the fire, which quickly grew out of control as the flames consumed PVC pipes that had been stored under the elevated highway for more than a decade.
Eleby, 39, was scheduled to make his first appearance before a judge on Saturday morning. He has a lengthy arrest record, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 19 arrests since 1995, mostly for drug offenses. Investigators believe he and the two other people arrested are homeless, Stafford said.
The fire was started around rush hour Thursday under the elevated span of the highway north of downtown Atlanta. The major commuter route carries 400,000 cars per day, according to the Associated Press. I-85 also carries interstate traffic from five states, running from Montgomery, Alabama, to Petersburg, Virginia.
Transportation officials stored plastic pipes used to protect fiber optic cables beneath the bridge, though that is not uncommon or dangerous, Stafford said. Stafford said homeless people have been known to congregate in the area, part of which is accessible via railroad tracks near Piedmont Road.
The blaze sent black smoke billowing high over the city. Passersby initially thought it was a car fire, but when firefighters reached the scene, they realized it was more serious, Stafford said.
By then the heat was so intense, firefighters couldn’t get close enough to hose down the fire.
“You could feel the heat coming off the 85 intersection. It made access under the bridge impossible,” Stafford said. “It was like a blast furnace. It was like a 50-foot wall of fire.”
Things quickly worsened, said Stafford, who’d arrived a few minutes after the calls was dispatched.
The firefighters “noticed chunks of concrete starting to fall. They noticed the concrete pillars starting to deteriorate.”
They made the decision to back off, Stafford said. “A few minutes after that decision was made, a large section came crashing down in one big piece.”
No one was injured in the crash, in part because officials had stopped traffic on the highway and gotten gawking onlookers away, Stafford said.
The fire damaged 700 feet of highway, which will have to be replaced, an effort that will last for months, according to a news release from the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Demolition began this weekend. The U.S. Department of Transportation has jump-started the rebuilding effort with $10 million in federal funds.