Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a State of Emergency for Fulton County Thursday night after a massive blaze burning underneath an overpass on the northbound portion of the I-85 near Piedmont Road caused it to collapse.
The large fire beneath the overpass was reported at about 6:30 p.m. after witnesses saw plumes of black smoke. Around 30 minutes later, a portion of the bridge collapsed, causing complete closure of the interstate. No injuries were reported.
“The state is mobilizing all available resources to ensure public safety and minimize disruption of traffic as we continue emergency response efforts,” said Deal in a statement. “As this safety investigation and bridge assessment continues, we encourage the public to avoid the affected area, remain patient and allow first responders to perform their jobs.”
Firefighters managed to extinguish the fire and the southbound portion of I-85 was reopened around 9:00 p.m. at Shallowford Road. Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) was on the scene assessing the bridge, but it was reportedly still too hot for them to conduct a thorough inspection.
While the cause of the fire is still unclear, the FBI told Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed that there’s no evidence of terrorism.
“This is as serious a transportation crisis as we could have. The governor has been leading and we have been acting on it,” Reed said, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Our primary concern, first and most important, is that no one has lost their life. And as we stand here right now, we think that’s the situation.”
Major Disruptions Expected with Some Schools Closing
The portion of the interstate affected is considered a major interstate that serves an estimated 250,000 vehicles a day. The closure sent citizens and companies scrambling to find ways around the major roadblock.
MARTA, the bus and rail service that serves the area, has announced extended services throughout the weekend. A spokesperson for the service said that trains have not been affected by the incident and are running as normal.
“Due to the recent I-85 collapse, MARTA is providing additional services to accommodate the expected influx of passengers needing to navigate traffic congestion and delays,” MARTA announced on its site. “MARTA is increasing rail services to assist travelers during this time.”
Although Atlanta Public Schools will be on a normal schedule, Dekalb County Schools have canceled classes Friday.
“After careful evaluation, the district has determined that it will not be able to transport students to and from school efficiently given the transportation event this evening,” said Superintendent R. Stephen Green. “With one day before Spring Break begins, the prudent decision is to keep students at home, and not contribute to difficult travel conditions.”
The district hopes that by taking buses off the road, it will reduce the impact on roads on a day in which many drivers will be forced to find alternate routes.
The City of Atlanta government offices and the Municipal Court of Atlanta will be open tomorrow but will have a delayed start at 10 a.m.
Officer Stephanie Brown, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta Police Department, told Channel 2 news that law enforcement is working on creating a traffic plan for the Friday commute.
“We will continue updating the public on alternative traffic routes and other information as it becomes available,” Deal said.
Firefighters Reported ‘Wall of Fire’
A unit of the Atlanta Fire Department was returning from another fire when it noticed heavy smoke coming from underneath an overpass on I-85, Atlanta Fire Department spokesman Cortez Stafford told CNN.
“There was a 40-feet or higher wall of fire. Power lines were falling and arcing heavily and falling in the streets,” Stafford said.
Firefighters battled the blaze but were asked to step back from the bridge as concrete began falling. Within minutes, a large section of the bridge broke and came crashing down.
Fire trucks from the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport were called to the scene to spray the fire with foam, which is typically only used during fires involving airplanes.
Witnesses and residents near the scene called it a complete mess and said that firefighters were spraying water on an apartment complex to stop the fire from spreading, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Wind also pushed smoke from the fire into areas outside midtown and downtown. The Georgia Department of Health warned people Thursday to stay inside and away from the smoke.
“Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing coughing, a scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, headaches, stinging eyes or a runny nose, the department said in a news release. “People with heart disease might experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath or fatigue.”
Bridge Closed For ‘Foreseeable Future’
Even though inspectors have not been able to analyze the extent of the damage, officials are warning that it will not be open in the immediate future.
GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said that all five lanes in both directions have been blocked and both will be closed “for the foreseeable future,” according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The governor said that GDOT inspectors were on site and that the construction crew that built the bridge had been contacted to look at schematics in order to better determine the length of time it will take to repair the bridge.
Reginald DesRoches, a professor at Georgia Tech, told CNN that it is still too early to say how long repairing the interstate will take and the surrounding area should also be checked for damage.
“It certainly can take anywhere from several weeks to several months,” he said to CNN. “The surrounding sections of the highway will be evaluated to determine if any damage was sustained from the heat. It is probably prudent to check both sides of the adjacent sections (northbound and southbound).”