Mar 31, 2017

I-85 bridge collapses; DeKalb schools closed Friday, APS open

Fire officials extinguished a massive fire on I-85 on Thursday night after it burned for more than an hour and led to the collapse of a bridge on the interstate, fire officials said.

The bridge on I-85 northbound just south of Ga. 400 near Piedmont Road collapsed about 7 p.m., Atlanta fire spokesman Sgt. Cortez Stafford said.

No injuries to motorists or first responders were reported.

“We do have the fire under control,” Stafford said.

Gov. Nathan Deal said Georgia Department of Transportation inspectors are on the scene and that the construction crew that built the bridge has been contacted to look at the schematics and determine how long it will take to repair.

He said the cause of the fire is not yet known but “the speculation I’ve heard is that there are some PVC products that caught fire.”

Spokesman Eric Burton said all MARTA trains are running as normal and have not been affected by the fire.

“MARTA seems like your best bet to get out of the city,” Burton said.

Some bus routes have been affected, MARTA reported.

Atlanta Public Schools will be on normal schedule Friday, Channel 2 Action News reported, but DeKalb County Schools will be canceled.

The City of Atlanta government offices and the Municipal Court of Atlanta will have a delayed start of 10 a.m. Friday.

Capt. Mark Perry of the Georgia State Patrol said terrorism is not suspected, but they don't know what started the fire. At first they thought it was a car burning, but later said it could have been something else, Perry said.

Troopers based in Atlanta were working about 7:45 p.m. to get cars on the interstate turned around.

Atlanta police spokeswoman Officer Stephanie Brown told Channel 2 that her department is working on a traffic plan for Friday morning.

Hours after the collapse, the air stretching a quarter-mile north of the bridge was still acrid, spreading like a thin black fog.

All businesses surrounding the site were closed, including Tower Liquors, several popular adult entertainment clubs, shops and restaurants.

The collapse site is near the Orkin pesticide corporate headquarters on Piedmont Road.

Atlanta police on the scene said it could be hours or days before the stretch of Piedmont is open again to traffic because authorities are concerned with potential structural damage.

Eyewitness accounts

All Rose Diggs wanted to do was get home.

She lives less than a mile from the crash, but couldn’t get home because Piedmont Road between Garson Drive and Lakeshore Drive was blocked.

"I have a handicap," she said, "and they're saying I have to walk, but it's raining and dark."

Michael Brooks, 43, was heading home on I-85 when he saw the smoke.

"I thought it was a terrible wreck. Vehicles stopped suddenly," said Brooks, who works at CNN.

People started getting out of their cars. They said, "the bridge is going to collapse."

Brooks said he sat there for two and a half hours. As for Friday, he said about getting to work, "I guess I'll figure that out some way."

Nicole Allen, Chris Krupa and Jason Shipp were at a Taco Mac on Lindbergh when they noticed everyone was staring out the window taking pictures.

"Usually Piedmont Road is gridlocked," Krupa said. "But it's a ghost town."

All are worried about one thing: how this will affect Friday's commute.

"I'll probably take the side streets," Allen said.

Shipp was hoping for something different:

"Maybe this catastrophe will draw attention to increasing MARTA lines and better transportation infrastructure," he said.

All lanes on the interstate remain blocked.

Traffic concerns

GDOT warned all motorists to stay off I-85 near Midtown.

GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said the interstate will be closed in both directions “for the foreseeable future.”

The collapse of a major interstate through town is sure to scramble commerce. Companies are contemplating their next moves.

A spokeswoman for Atlanta-based delivery giant UPS said the company’s contingency planners are assessing the I-85 situation “to define our activity, routing.”

While many interstate tractor-trailer drivers use I-285, rather than taking I-85 through the city, the closing of I-85 will certainly push traffic onto other interstates, potentially scrambling traffic there.

Delta Air Lines said it will “work with customers on a case-by-case basis to accommodate them if they’re running late as a result of any ensuing traffic issues.”

The Atlanta-based airline also said it encourages its employees to monitor traffic reports and “use their best judgment in safely commuting to their jobs,” spokesman Morgan Durrant said.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday evening warned people to allow extra time heading southbound or to take MARTA.

Economic impacts

“It’s a massive productivity issue,” said Brian McGowan, a former CEO of Atlanta’s economic development arm and now a principal in the US Public Policy and Regulation practice at law firm Dentons. “You are going to have hundreds or thousands of companies who can’t get their employees to work on time.”

The public sector will also take a blow as tens of thousands of government workers will be affected.

McGowan said the short-term potential losses are substantial. It will disrupt businesses’ supply chains. Families will have to re-think how they travel around the city.

The collapse of the bridge will also shift sales at restaurants as diners choose other places to eat because of convenience.

And like the infamous Snowjam debacle of 2014, McGowan said, “it once again highlights the vulnerability of the Atlanta transportation system.”

Braves game affected?

Jim Wilgus, head of the Cobb County Transportation Department, said the department was waiting for GDOT to fully assess the situation and would offer assistance if asked.

As for the Braves’ exhibition game Friday night at SunTrust Park, Wilgus said there were no changes to the county’s traffic plan so far.

“We’ll have to wait until we get a further assessment from GDOT,” Wilgus said.

During the fire

The flames started underneath the interstate. Fire officials asked drivers in the area to keep their windows closed.

Paula Pontes, a resident of the Peninsula at Buckhead, said when her home went dark she thought it was an incoming storm.

“It got dark all of a sudden so I turned on the news to see if it was the rain,” Pontes told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

She said she never heard an explosion and couldn’t see flames, but it smelled like burnt rubber.

“I didn’t panic because I couldn’t see the fire coming,” she said. “It was just smoke. It became night.”

The Georgia Department of Public Health said wind pushed smoke into other areas, but there was “no significant toxicity identified in the smoke.”

Anne Marsden was leaving her office on Ottley Drive next to the Sweetwater Brewery around 6:30 p.m. when she saw the smoke coming from the interstate.

"It was a mess," said Marsden, who runs a marketing business. "Nothing was moving."

She said firefighters were spraying water on a nearby apartment complex to keep the fire from spreading.

Smoke can cause coughing, headaches, stinging eyes or a runny nose, the public health department warned. It could particularly affect those with heart disease or lung disease.

The public health department said people should limit their exposure to the smoke by staying inside, keeping windows and doors closed, and running an air conditioner if possible. Avoid burning candles, fireplaces or gas stoves, or even vacuuming, which can stir up particles.

Those who have difficulty breathing or whose symptoms worsen should get medical attention, the public health department said.

Marsden used an alternative route to get to her Buckhead home, but stopped at Houstons on Piedmont to check on several employees who'd gone there. That's when the bridge collapsed.

"Now we are in planning mode via text for how to do business with no access to our office for an unknown period of time," she said.

Volleyball visitors

William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the road collapse will impact thousands of teen girls heading downtown to the Georgia World Congress Center for the BigSouth National Qualifier volleyball tournament.

About 60,000 people are expected for the event, which runs Friday through Sunday. It kicks off at 8 a.m. Friday and is one of the city’s biggest sports conventions.

The 1,400 teams are staying in 100 hotels from the airport area to Alpharetta or traveling in from nearby cities, Pate said.

— Staff writers David Wickert, Rhonda Cook, Matt Kempner, Scott Trubey, Christian Boone, Marlon Walker, Meris Lutz, Leon Stafford, Kelly Yamanouchi, Rosalind Bentley and Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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