ATLANTA — 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 travelled route through the heart of the city.
Deputy Insurance Commissioner Jay Florence said Basil Eleby faces a charge of criminal damage to property, and Sophia Bruner and Barry Thomas each were charged with criminal trespass.
“We believe they were together when the fire was set and Eleby is the one who set the fire,” Florence told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Florence would not discuss how the fire was started or why, saying those details would be released as the investigation progresses.
Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on streets near the shut-down portion of the interstate as drivers were forced to take a detour the day after the blaze.
The collapse took place a few miles north of downtown, and the effects could fall most heavily on commuters from Atlanta’s densely populated northern suburbs. They will have to find other routes to work or ride mass transit.
Connie Bailey-Blake, of Dacula, 37 miles northeast of Atlanta, waited for a MARTA commuter train to reach her job downtown. She typically drives, often by way of the interstate.
“I’m supposed to be at work at 9 a.m. and it’s 9:15 a.m.,” Bailey-Blake said. “The first few days are going to be difficult. This will be my new life.”
Amelia Ford picked a new route to work by car and said it took her 45 minutes to travel 3 miles from her Atlanta home to the nearest open on-ramp to the interstate.
Georgia Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said 350 feet of highway will need to be replaced in both directions on I-85, which carries about 400,000 cars a day through the city and is one of the South’s most important north-south routes.
He said repairs will take months but declined to be more specific.
The collapse effectively “puts a cork in the bottle,” Georgia State Patrol Commissioner Mark McDonough said.
The fire broke out Thursday afternoon in an area used to store state-owned construction materials and equipment, sending flames and smoke high into the air. Fire authorities said they had not determined how the blaze started.
McMurry said his department stored coils of plastic conduit used in fiber optic networks beneath the span but insisted they were noncombustible.
No injuries were reported from the fire and collapse. Firefighters shut down the section of highway before it gave way, and made it to safety themselves after hearing the road cracking and seeing concrete go flying, authorities said.
In the meantime, MARTA increased rail service and said additional staff would be on hand to help passengers figure out how to get where they’re going.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao promptly released $10 million for the initial repair work, and the Federal Highway Administration promised more in emergency repair funds. Officials gave no estimate of how much the job would cost.
Built in 1953 and renovated in 1985, the span scored high in its most recent inspection, receiving a rating of 94.6 out of 100 in 2015, said Natalie Dale, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Transportation Department.