Homeless man accused of smoking crack and starting fire that brought the I-85 down

A homeless man has been accused of smoking crack and setting fire to a piece of furniture, causing the blaze that brought down a section of elevated highway near Atlanta, Georgia last week and sparking transport chaos in the southeastern US.

Basil Eleby, 39, has been charged with first-degree arson and first-degree criminal damage to property, and could face federal charges, but his lawyer says he is being scapegoated to deflect attention away from the state’s storage, for years, of flammable construction materials under the bridge, which collapsed during the evening of Thursday, 30 March.

The bridge has to be removed from the top down, beginning with the concrete deck and the pre-stressed concrete beams, following that the concrete caps and columns– Jeremy Daniel, state construction liaison

A national review has been launched into the state’s storage procedures and policies.

Demolition and repair of the damaged section of the Interstate 85 highway (I-85), meanwhile, began right away with Georgia’s Department of Transportation (GDOT) sending reconstruction designs at midnight on Sunday, 2 April to a contractor picked on an emergency basis.

With engineers working full pelt GDOT believes it can have the 700-foot-long section rebuilt and open to traffic on 15 June, in just over two months.

"The demolition has gone really well," said state construction liaison Jeremy Daniel in an update on 6 April. "You know, it’s a huge operation with a lot of heavy equipment removing a lot of large, heavy material from elevations high above the ground, so the safety of the workers and the travelling public is obviously the number one priority."

Fire engulfs a section of the I-85 on 30 March (Atlanta Fire Rescue/Twitter)

He added: "Yesterday we had a big storm, the contractor worked right through it except in times of severe lightening."

Feeling the heat

The local media spotlight is now on Basil Eleby, a man reported to be homeless and to have a long history of drugs offences. According to an affidavit supplied by fire investigators in support of a police warrant for his arrest, Eleby admitted to being under the bridge and intending to smoke crack, newspaper The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Eleby told investigators he left the area before the fire started, but the affidavit said another witness told investigators that he saw Eleby place a stuffed chair "on top of a shopping cart, reach under the shopping cart and ignite it", reported the newspaper.

The man’s lawyer, Liz Markowitz of the Fulton County Public Defender’s Office, told the Journal-Constitution she believed her client was being singled out unfairly. "I think he was scapegoated," Markowitz said on 4 April, adding that at least six other attorneys, attracted by the high-profile case, have approached Eleby about representing him.

Eleby is being held in the Fulton County Jail on a $200,000 bond. He is due in court again on 14 April, said the Journal-Constitution.

Petroleum-based products

Also under investigation is the role played by the state in storing large spools of plastic and fiberglass conduit under the bridge.

"We have an aggressive but attainable plan to have I-85 rebuilt by June 15," said GDOT on Twitter (GDOT)

At a press conference on 4 April GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry acknowledged that GDOT owned the high-density polyethylene and fiberglass conduit stored there since 2011, and that the matter was under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

He also said he had asked state fire authorities to help GDOT review its storage procedures and policies.

In an interview with the Journal-Constitution the Georgia state fire marshal said the materials were petroleum based and that allowed the fire to spread so quickly. "It is a petroleum-based product and that’s why you had black smoke," said fire marshal Dwayne Garriss. "When it started turning from solid into a liquid, it starts pooling."

Meanwhile, the job of fixing the I-85 went on an emergency basis to C.W. Mathews Contracting Company, based in Marietta, Georgia.

GDOT picked the company based on its availability, resources and experience providing a similar response to a tanker fire that damaged I-285 over SR 400 in 2001.

In his update, state construction liaison Jeremy Daniel highlighted the complexity of the job: "The bridge has to be removed from the top down, beginning with the concrete deck and the pre-stressed concrete beams, following that the concrete caps and columns. Portions of the columns had to be removed," he said.

Top image: A 700-foot-long section of the I-85 in both directions must be demolished and rebuilt (GDOT)

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