ATLANTA – A massive fire caused an interstate bridge to collapse during rush hour Thursday in Atlanta, just minutes after witnesses said police halted traffic and turned cars away from the crumbling overpass. However, officials said no one was hurt despite dramatic images of towering flames and plumes of smoke.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the fire burned for more than an hour under I-85 northbound near Piedmont Road, spewing large clouds of black smoke skyward. The interstate – a major artery for the U.S. South that runs through the heart of Atlanta – was closed indefinitely.
The impact on traffic long-term was not immediately known, but traffic was bumper to bumper on nearby surface streets Thursday night as people scrambled to find alternate routes. The Department of Transportation warned all motorists to stay off I-85.
“This is about as serious a transportation crisis as we can imagine,” Mayor Kasim Reed said.
All Rose Diggs told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she lives less than a mile from the fire site but couldn’t get home because of blocked surface streets. She said she was told to walk despite being disabled, “but it’s raining and dark.”
The state’s top transportation official said there’s no way to tell when the highway, which carries 250,000 cars per day, can be safely reopened to traffic in either direction.
“We will have to continue to evaluate the situation and adjust as we do,” Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said. “This incident – make no bones about it – will have a tremendous impact on travel.”
The interstate is a major thoroughfare for traffic heading north and south through Atlanta. The bridge collapse effectively “puts a cork in the bottle,” Georgia State Patrol Commissioner Mark McDonough said.
Capt. Mark Perry of the Georgia State Patrol told the Journal-Constitution that the agency doesn’t know what started the fire beneath the bridge but that terrorism is not suspected.
Gov. Nathan Deal told reporters that some PVC plastic materials in a vehicle may have caught fire. “I do not know why they did or what the source of their transport was,” Deal said. “But those are questions that will hopefully be answered at least by tomorrow morning.”
Deal added that “to my knowledge we have not had any injuries as a result of this fire on the bridge.”
Atlanta Fire Department spokesman Sgt. Cortez Stafford said no cars were on the overpass when it fell.
“Our guys got here quickly and shut down the interstate and said, “No one else is driving over this bridge,” he said.
Firefighters noticed chunks of concrete falling from the bridge and got out of the way just minutes before it collapsed, Stafford said.
Deal said inspectors were at the scene and they’ve contacted the original company that built the bridge to come in and assess the extent of the damage.
“We’re trying to determine everything we can about how quickly can we repair it and get it back in service,” Deal said. “I can assure you we will do everything to expedite the repair and replacement of that section of the bridge.”
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