ATLANTA –– Drivers in one of the nation’s most congested cities faced a jarring new reality Friday as they were forced to game out how to get around a collapsed portion of Atlanta’s Interstate 85 –– one of the Southeast’s major north-south arteries.
A mysterious fire collapsed part of I-85 northbound Thursday evening –– injuring no one –– and also damaged the southbound portion, forcing the closure of all five lanes in each direction for the foreseeable future.
The shutdown likely sets the city up for traffic headaches for months after creating navigation hell Thursday with jams that extended five miles or more and stranded motorists for hours.
The closure comes at a sensitive time for a city accustomed to gridlock –– with hordes of spring break vacationers poised to drive though the regional hub and the Atlanta Braves set to play a preseason game Friday night in their new stadium northwest of the city.
“I think it’s as serious a transportation crisis as we could have,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said Thursday evening.
The fire started Thursday evening under I-85 in northeast Atlanta, north of the highway’s split with I-75.
At first, I-85 motorists drove through the smoke, and firefighters fought the flames below. It eventually grew into a massive fireball.
“There was a 40-feet or higher wall of fire. Power lines were falling and arcing heavily and falling in the streets,” Sergeant Cortez Stafford, a spokesman for the Atlanta Fire Department, told CNN.
The elevated span of highway collapsed about 7 p.m. as crews battling the fire got out of danger’s way, fire officials said.
As concrete began falling from under the bridge, firefighters were asked to step back, Stafford said. “Not even two minutes later, the highway fell with a big ‘kaboom’. [It] knocked our guys back.”
While the highway is normally jammed with cars around that time, there were no fatalities, Reed said.
More than 220,000 cars per day are estimated to drive through that stretch of the interstate. Officials scrambled to come up with alternate routes and encouraged riders to use public transit.
Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said it wasn’t immediately clear what started the fire at the state’s construction-equipment storage area near the bridge.
Governor Nathan Deal said Thursday that he had heard speculation it was caused by some “PVC products that caught fire”.
McMurry initially said the materials stored under the bridge were PVC pipes but later said they were HDPE –– high-density polyethylene –– pipes. He said the conduits are used in the “traffic management, cabling, fiber-optic and wire network”.
The material had been stored there “for some time, probably since 2006 or ,” McMurry said.
“We’re as eager to learn the cause of this fire as anyone,” he said.
Two fire trucks from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport south of the city rushed to the scene and sprayed foam on the fallen section of roadway and the flames.
Investigators have no evidence the fire is linked to terrorism, and an investigation is underway, the mayor said.
The Environmental Protection Agency took samples of the air and of the water in a nearby creek; results will be available in about two weeks, EPA spokesman Larry Lincoln said.