00:48 - Source: CNN
Fire causes Atlanta interstate to collapse

Story highlights

Firefighters arrived quickly, stopped traffic on I-85, sensing section of it would collapse

"I believe that saved a lot of lives," Atlanta fire official says

Atlanta CNN —  

A five-lane section of Interstate 85 collapsed during evening rush hour in the heart of Atlanta after a massive fire broke out underneath the roadway, and yet miraculously, no lives were lost.

How did that happen?

In short, quick reactions by firefighters, astute early appraisal of what the fire might do and the luck of a fire station being near the source of the blaze.

The fire began just after 6 p.m. Thursday under part of I-85 near Piedmont Road in northeast Atlanta. Less than an hour later, the blaze caused an elevated section of the northbound interstate to collapse, at about 7 p.m.

Flames quickly engulf a stretch of northbound Interstate 85 on Thursday evening in Atlanta.
Jackson Klinefelter/CNN
Flames quickly engulf a stretch of northbound Interstate 85 on Thursday evening in Atlanta.

“You could almost tell what was about to happen,” said Sgt. Cortez Stafford, a spokesman for the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department.

Soon after firefighters arrived, that section of the roadway began to break apart.

Key moments in I-85 collapse

6:12 p.m.: First report of fire near Interstate 85 north of downtown Atlanta

6:20 p.m.: First fire crews arrive on the scene; shortly after arriving, they see large chunks of concrete beginning to fall off the roadway and make the crucial decision to pull the responder units back.

6:45 p.m.: Law enforcement officials begin advising drivers to turn around because of worries about the integrity of that stretch of I-85, according to CNN affiliate WSB-TV. Commuters are stranded as all five lanes of the highway in each direction are blocked.

7 p.m.: Large plumes of smoke can be seen for miles.

7:05 p.m.: A section of the interstate collapses, sending a massive chunk of concrete hurdling to the street below.

7:45 p.m.: Trucks from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, south of the city, arrive on the scene with foam to dampen flames.

  • Sources: Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, Georgia Department of Transportation, WSB
  • “There were large chunks of concrete starting to come down,” Stafford told CNN. “I mean 200- to 300-pound chunks of concrete. We could see it dropping near our guys.”

    At that point, he said, a fire department incident commander “made the call to back everyone up.”

    “Within two to three minutes, a 100-foot section – 100 feet long, maybe 50 to 75 feet wide – came crashing down.”

    The wall of fire rising up reached 40 feet high at times, causing power lines to fall into the streets.

    Similarly, Stafford said, firefighters stopped car traffic on I-85 almost as soon as they arrived on the scene, sensing collapse of the roadway could be imminent. They could feel the amount of heat building up beneath the bridge, he said.

    “I believe that saved a lot of lives,” Stafford said. “People were driving by, not paying attention, taking pictures with camera phones.

    “My guys put a truck in the middle of the interstate and said, ‘Hey you can’t go by.’ ”

    Firefighters also halted pedestrian traffic below and near the bridge.

    Flames reach as high as 40 feet at the height of the fire in northeast Atlanta.
    Jackson Klinefelter/CNN
    Flames reach as high as 40 feet at the height of the fire in northeast Atlanta.

    According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, the area beneath that section of the expressway is “a secured area containing materials such as PVC piping which is a stable, non-combustible material.” Utilities use the piping to protect fiber optic and other electronic cables.

    The damage is not limited to just the northbound side of I-85. State DOT officials said Friday that the southbound sections of the highway were also damaged from the fire and would need to be replaced. All told, replacing the northbound and southbound sections will take months, officials said at a press conference Friday afternoon near the site of the roadway collapse.

    More than 220,000 cars are estimated to drive that stretch of I-85 every day – one of the major north-south arteries in the Southeast.

    CNN’s Faith Karimi and Steve Almasy contributed to this report.