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17 for ’17: ‘It Was Pretty Scary’: The Day The I-85 Bridge Collapsed

On March 30, a bridge on Interstate 85 in Atlanta’s Buckhead area collapsed. No one was injured, but commuters had to find new ways to get home and to work until the bridge was rebuilt.
On March 30, a bridge on Interstate 85 in Atlanta’s Buckhead area collapsed. No one was injured, but commuters had to find new ways to get home and to work until the bridge was rebuilt.
Credit Elizabeth Gaston

WABE News is looking back at the top 17 news stories in 2017. 

There was smoke, there was fire, and then it just went down.

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On March 30, a bridge on Interstate 85 in Atlanta’s Buckhead area fell to the ground. A fire under the bridge had ignited construction materials, and it had been smoldering, perhaps for hours.

In the short time between first responders’ arrival and the bridge collapse, they were able to get everyone off the bridge. Even though thousands of tons of cement and metal fell, no one got hurt.

Elizabeth Gaston lived in a building just a few yards away from the bridge. Police stopped her car before she could get close, so she walked the rest of the way. Gaston described what she saw: “Bunch of fire coming out, shooting out from under the underpass and all up over the bridge. And then, a couple of minutes, all of a sudden you heard just ‘boom.’ And I guess that was when the 85 collapsed. It was pretty scary.”

Police arrested a homeless man, Basil Eleby, and charged him with arson for allegedly setting fire to a grocery cart under the bridge. A team of lawyers quickly offered to represent Eleby pro bono, and as his case made its way through the courts system, Atlantans quickly learned to make new ways to home and work.

Within a few days, the Georgia Department of Transportation hired C.W. Matthews Contracting Co. to rebuild the bridge by June 15. The contract included a bonus for each day the work got finished before the deadline. The new bridge opened May 12.

Eleby is now participating in a court-sponsored program. If he completes the program, the arson charges against him will be dropped.