In the midst of the busiest day of the year at the Georgia Capitol all eyes turned to I-85, when at around 6:30pm a large fire was reported under the overpass near Piedmont Road. The highway was quickly closed, but as the fire grew so did concern over the stability of the bridge’s support.
Those fears were realized at 7:00, when an entire section of the overpass came crashing down, leaving an enormous gap in one of the busiest stretches of roadway in the entire southeast.
The source of the fire was not immediately known, but the homeless are known to congregate under the bridge. Coils of PVC piping, being stored under the bridge, caught on fire and gave off huge plumes of dark, toxic smoke. The heat from those flames was hot enough to melt the steel support beams under the bridge, leading to its collapse. Luckily no firefighters were hurt at the scene. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed made it clear that per the FBI there is no evidence that the incident was an act of terrorism, but did tell reporters that it was, “as serious a transportation crisis as we could have.”
Atlanta traffic, recently named 4th worst in the nation, is certain to rise to the top of that list until the bridge can be repaired. In the meantime commuters will be forced onto I-285, I-75, and surface streets. The fact that the collapse happened just south of 400 adds to the headache as that road is another key for commuters heading to the major job centers in the northeast part of the city.
MARTA immediately announced it would be extending service at least through the weekend as it becomes a top choice for commuters looking to avoid what promises to be the most hellish Atlanta traffic since the Snowpocalypse.
At the Capitol the Senate briefly recessed and the House had a moment of silence before continuing with the night’s fervent schedule. Governor Nathan Deal spoke to both houses before meeting a press scrum to discuss the early details of the collapse, which will surely be his top priority in coming weeks.
Later in the evening the Governor’s office declared a state of emergency for Fulton County, delaying the opening of government agencies until 10:00 am and urging commuters to avoid the affected area. Said Deal, The state is mobilizing all available resources to ensure public safety and minimize disruption of traffic as we continue emergency response efforts. The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is coordinating response efforts with the Georgia Department of Public Safety (DPS), the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency and other state and local officials.”
City of Atlanta schools will remain open, but DeKalb County schools will be closed on Friday.
No word yet on how long before the overpass is rebuilt, but it is likely that other sections will have to be torn down due to structural instability. A similar incident in Alabama over a decade ago took 38 days to repair, so expect at least a month of heavy traffic.