Gov. Nathan Deal Declares State of Emergency In Wake of Atlanta I-85 Bridge Fire, Collapse

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Atlanta officials are still unsure what sparked the massive fire that caused a portion of I-85 to collapse. Image courtesy of WSB-TV.

Just when you thought Atlanta traffic couldn’t get any worse, it does.

Emergency crews worked into the wee hours of Friday morning to extinguish a massive fire that broke out on Atlanta’s I-85 Thursday, March 30, leading to the collapse of a bridge on the busy highway.

The bridge on I-85 northbound near Ga. 400 and Piedmont Road went down around 7 p.m. Thursday evening as fire crews fought to extinguish the blaze that had erupted just an hour earlier, Atlanta fire spokesman Sgt. Cortez Stafford told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

No injuries to motorists or emergency workers were reported, but Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal went ahead and declared a state of emergency as local fire officials continued their clean-up and assessment of the damage. Officials said there’s no word on how long it’ll take to repair the bridge, but the disaster has shaped up to be a major headache for commuters traveling in and around the city.

“The cork is in the bottle” Department of Public Safety Director Mark McDonough said. “It couldn’t have happened at a worse time.”

Atlanta traffic is already nothing short of a nightmare, so the sudden collapse and closure of I-85 “for the foreseeable future,” according to GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale, is expected to exacerbate traffic woes. The booming city is slated to host the Big South National Qualifier volleyball tournament this weekend, which is expected to bring at least 60,000 more people to the Atlanta area. Moreover, Atlantans will be traveling north of 85 to make it to the Braves -N.Y. Yankees exhibition game at the new SunTrust Park stadium in Cobb County Friday night.

Concerns over traffic congestion prompted emergency meetings among local school district leaders about whether to cancel school in light of the bridge collapse. Atlanta Public Schools moved to hold classes at their regular times, while students in DeKalb County were granted a day off. State and city government offices delayed their openings Friday morning to ease the amount of traffic on the roads.

For those still forced to commute, drivers traveling southbound into Atlanta on I-85 won’t get further than Cheshire Bridge Road and will have to find an alternate route. Drivers traveling south on Georgia 400 into Buckhead will be forced to exit at Lenox Road, then take surface streets to get where they’re going, according to WSB Radio 750.

Alternate routes through the Brookhaven and N. Druid Hills areas include Peachtree Road, Briarcliff Road and N. Druid Hills Road. Those who wish to stick with the interstates, however, can take I-85/SB from Gwinnett County to I-285 south or east at Spaghetti Junction. From there, they can hop on I-20/WB to get to Downtown Atlanta, the traffic radio site reported.

“This incident, make no bones about it, will have a tremendous impact on travel,” GDOT Commissioner Russell R. McMurry said.

The cause of Thursday’s fire is still under investigation. Stafford said determining the cause of the blaze could take some time, as inspectors are unable to get under the bridge due to the heat and structural concerns.

Alfred Msezane, a Clark Atlanta University professor and an expert in chemistry and physics explained the circumstances that were likely present to cause the interstate to collapse like it did. He compared the PVC pipes and other equipment to stored underneath the bridge to a can of gasoline left out in the summer heat: the hotter the can becomes, the more pressure builds and will eventually combust.

“If you put any kind of material (including plastic PVC pipes), under that kind of heat, it will combust and burn,” Msezane said.” You can try to move that (damaged) material at the speed of light, you could move it overnight. But you can’t fast forward a process like that.”

The I-85 collapse is expected to impact city traffic for weeks until it’s repaired.

Mayor Kasim Reed said he’d been in contact with the FBI and was assured there was no evidence the I-85 fire and collapse was terrorism related.

“It’s going to take some time to do a thorough assessment to determine what damage has been done to that section of the interstate,” Reed added.

Photos and video footage of the highway inferno flooded social media Thursday as Atlantans reacted to the fire and billowing black smoke they saw for miles on their commute homes.

Many motorists found themselves stranded on the highway once the bridge collapsed.

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