ATLANTA - The early evening of March 30, 2017, started out with a typical Thursday rush hour but ended up becoming one of the most impactful and unforgettable events in recent Atlanta history.
SKYFOX 5 was flying north toward Chamblee when it spotted thick black smoke. This is nothing uncommon for the crew of the Bell 206b Jet Ranger. They have seen their fair share of car fires, but this one was different. The smoke plume was larger and black as night.
Just before 6:45 p.m., Atlanta got its first look at the scene on FOX 5 Live. It was a raging inferno under the Interstate 85 viaduct right next to the MARTA rail yard. Both northbound and southbound traffic was at a standstill as well as southbound traffic along the adjacent Buford Connector.
Firefighters were still arriving. Soon, a ladder truck parked on the nearby Piedmont Road was shooting high-powered jets of water over the now-closed Buford Connector trying to quell the flames which could be seen from the FOX 5 Atlanta tower near Emory University.
The first thought that went through most people's minds was, "How could the interstate be on fire?" It was FOX 5 News Edge Anchor Tom Haynes who first took a tour under the bridge using Google Street View. Haynes pointed out the now infamous giant spools of plastic utility conduits. It was something SKYFOX 5 was able to confirm zooming in tight into the space, now consumed with flames, visible between the gap of the I-85 overpass and the Buford Connector.
At 7:06 p.m., a span of the northbound overpass collapsed. The collective on-air shock from Haynes and FOX 5 anchor Russ Spencer upon learning a span just fell could be heard in their voices. Officials said they were able to pull all the firefighters out from under the overpass just before the collapse after noticing signs of fatigue in the structure. People stuck in the immediate area said they heard a loud rumble as the structure crashed to the ground. No one was injured, thanks to how the first responders handled the situation.
SKYFOX 5 zoomed in as the fire continued to rage despite the collapse. The city was now at a standstill, not just on the roadways, but in digesting a nightmare scenario for millions. How could they get to work? How will their kids get to school? What just happened and why? And who is responsible?
As the sun began to set, the mild spring evening temperatures would further aid in cooling of the concrete damaged by hours of intense heat which melted the steel supports, causing the inevitable collapse.
The inferno itself would actually burn into the night, only extinguished thanks to the help of firefighters at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Several foam trucks were called to the scene to dampen the remaining flames. Firefighters also worked to make sure the fire didn't spread to a nearby Goodwill store or to the MARTA rail yard.
It wouldn't be until morning when the remaining structure cooled that G-DOT engineers would be able to fully assess the damage. Until then, officials turned their attention to diverting traffic off onto alternative routes and the arduous task of trying to figure out how the 250,000 cars which typically travel that portion of I-85 will reach their destinations safely for the Friday morning commute.
Two additional closures would further complicate the daily commute. The Buford Connector was shut down to allow crews access to the overpass while Piedmont Road remained closed until officials could make sure the spans overhead were safe and secure.
As FOX 5 News at 10 began that evening, Governor Nathan Deal officially declared a state of emergency, freeing up emergency funding and directing priorities to fix the interstate as quickly as possible.
Some relief came immediately in the form of closings and time changes. Schools closed, government offices shuttered their doors early for the weekend, and many government offices chose to open late. All levels of government were impacted by the disaster. Teleworking became the trend of the hour and a big push for commuters to take MARTA, the likes which had not been seen since Atlanta hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
As Good Day Atlanta came on the air early on March 31, 2017, a light smoke could still be seen rising from the area where a large span of concrete should have been. Firefighters continued to douse hotspots throughout the night and make the area safe for engineers to get a look at the damage, but around 7:30 a.m., an assessment was made and demolition on the downed span began.
"We're in the process to determine the extent of the damage," G-DOT Commissioner Russell McMurray said.
G-DOT officials said in addition to the collapsed span, two other northbound spans and three southbound spans were damaged to the point of needing immediate replacement.
"That's a total of about 350-feet northbound and 350-feet southbound that will have to be totally replaced," Commissioner McMurry said. "That is no small feat, but we're up for the challenge."
Design work was already in the process of being drawn up and the U.S. Secretary of Transportation authorized a release of $10 million to help advance the replacement of the damaged area. Initial estimates put completion of the work well into the late summer months.
G-DOT officials also acknowledged those giant spools of plastic utility conduits which had been stored under the overpass since as early as 2006. Officials stated they were behind a locked chain linked fence and had a low risk of combustibility on their own.
"Obviously this is construction material that no one would expect to go up in flames and cause this kind of catastrophe. But nothing is off the table because we want to do what we have to do to keep something like this from happening again," said McMurray.
So, how could they catch fire and what sparked it? Those answers would come from the Atlanta Police Department early Friday evening. Following up on witness reports, police said they were able to identify three people who were seen under the overpass shortly before the fire started. Basil Eleby, Sophia Broner and Barry Thomas, all reportedly homeless, were identified by police. Broner and Thomas were cited for criminal trespass, a misdemeanor. Meanwhile, police pointed to Eleby as the one who set the fire which would lead to the unimaginable disaster.
“They used available materials to start the fire. We got reports that several individuals were in the area. We interviewed those; that led to a third,” said Jay Florence, Deputy Insurance, and Safety Fire Commissioner.
Investigators said Eleby had been smoking crack before he lit a "chair set on top of a shopping cart" on fire, causing it to spread to the nearby plastic conduits and the loss of I-85 through one of its busiest areas.
Despite everything, Atlantans found their sense of humor in posting memes and jokes about the collapse which was a source to ease the coming months of frustrations. Several businesses did their part to help as well. Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A even offered free breakfast for carpools with three or more people.
The so-called MARTA Army, a grassroots organization whose goal is to help improve Atlanta's mass transit system, gathered volunteers over the weekend to be out at some of the busiest stations and stops around the service area to guide first-time riders.
"We expect a large surge in demand for public transportation next week and so we wanted to help first-time MARTA users navigate the system and purchase Breeze cards," said Simon Berrebi, executive director of the MARTA Army told FOX 5’s Claire Simms.
Officials with the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority said they saw a 25 percent increase in ridership immediately following the collapse and an 80 percent increase in Breeze Card sales.
Within a week, MARTA also offered a real-time parking tracker for their busiest stations to help riders.
By Monday, most of the damaged overpass had been taken down and were being reduced to rubble.
"I think they're going at a record pace and I'm hoping this is a pace we can continue as we strive to restore and rebuild this important stretch of interstate," Gov. Deal said.
Piedmont Road was reopened and the southbound lanes of the Buford Connector soon followed, easing some of the congestion.
Also, a deadline was set to reopen: June 15. The clock was ticking. Were 10 weeks enough?
"A very aggressive, but attainable date," said McMurray. "This is a great date. This is much better than our initial thought."
Meanwhile, more details were emerging about the man who allegedly set the fire. Eleby frequented the area of Piedmont Road near I-85. Those who knew him said he slept in a car, did odd jobs and was trusted by nearby businessmen. Some described him as a nice and lovely guy.
Anthem Automotive Service Manager David Walker knew the homeless man.
“At one point he came to me and asked for a couple of bucks for some food. And I said look if you're gonna buy a beer with it just tell me and I'll buy you a beer. If you want food, I'll buy you food. Just be honest with me,” said Walker. “I could trust him with my kids. I know that much.”
The '98 Mercedes where associates said Basil slept at night was in a lot owned by Menge Gizachew and even let Elerby use his business bathroom to wash up on a regular basis.
Both men said they did not know about Eleby's guilt or innocence, but they believed the street-smart homeless man who frequently talked about his mother, should not be the only one held responsible for the inferno that led to the bridge collapse. His lawyers agreed going further to say Eleby was a "scapegoat" by government officials to avoid public scrutiny and accountability.
He appeared in court on April 18, 2017, entered a not guilty plea, and was granted a $10,000 consent signature bond. He was released the next day and was checked into a facility where he received a mental health evaluation, counseling, and drug treatment.
While Eleby worked his way through the legal system, crews worked around the clock with $3 million in incentives hanging in the balance. Columns were formed and set. Soon after, cross supports were put in place and before long concrete was being poured to form the new lanes. Progress was noticeable and moved quickly.
“When this started it was inconceivable it could be done this quick,” said the Dan Garcia, the President of CW Matthews.
On Friday, May 11, 2017, around 7 p.m., more than a month ahead of the deadline, the northbound lanes of I-85 reopened. A day later, the southbound lanes.
“It is absolutely safe. We've had at least ten inspectors a day, totally some 2,500 man-hours of inspection,” said McMurray.
"This is a time to say thank you because this is an extraordinarily short period of time to complete such a major project," Gov. Deal said.
The city of Atlanta lifted many of the restrictions put in place to help prevent commuters from cutting through some of the nearby residential neighborhoods.
While the city was recovering, it appeared the main suspect in the arson case was too. Four months in an addiction treatment facility seemed to do well for Eleby. He had gone from more than a decade of homelessness, living in a car, to a clean-shaven, well-groomed man in a business suit as he made a court appearance for an arraignment on August 14, 2017.
“I just want to say thanks to everybody for supporting me. My lawyers, the people at the church, Pastor Rice... you guys have been doing a good job with me," Elegy marveled.
But by early fall of 2017, Eleby had relapsed on his drug habit, failing a court-mandated drug test. After a second negative test, Superior Court Judge Constance Russell ruled he could stay in his drug treatment program and out of jail.
In court, Judge Russell told Eleby, "If you flunk a drug test again, your bond will be revoked."
After the hearing, Eleby told FOX 5’s Aungelique Proctor in an exclusive interview he let a lot of people down by failing the earlier drug test, and he is disappointed himself.
Eleby said he has been addicted to drugs for 15 years and breaking the addiction is hard.
Two months later, his case would be transferred to Behavioral Court, averting a possible 25-year prison sentence if found guilty. Eleby was put into a rigorous 18-month program, which if successfully completed, would mean the arson case would be dropped.
The formerly homeless man still maintains his innocence and is grateful to so many people who believed in him.
"Even in my most drug-induced state, there is no way that one man could have started that fire, plus bridges aren't engineered to burn that fast," Eleby said standing with three of his four pro bono attorneys.
A year later, Eleby is still going through the program, he's drug-free, and even has a part-time job with the law firm who helped to defend him. He said in another year, he hopes to be another year drug-free and on his way to running his own business.
Officials estimate the repair cost at around $16.6 million, 90 percent which was paid for by the federal government. The disaster has changed the way materials are stored by transportation departments across the country and serves as an example of a quick recovery.
A month before the anniversary of the I-85 bridge collapse, the topic of the safety of bridges and accelerated construction was thrown into the limelight again as people questioned the soundness of Georgia's most recent high-profile freeway project.
G-DOT said the latest inspection of the reconstructed portion of I-85 occurred in October 2017, netting a score of seven out of a scale of nine, noting minor wear and tear and no structural deficiencies.
Unlike the Florida pedestrian bridge, the I-85 bridge was constructed in place rather than built elsewhere and transported, GDOT officials said.
The outcome of a federal investigation into the disaster remained pending.