ATLANTA — A man charged with arson Saturday in the raging fire that collapsed part of Interstate 85 north of downtown Atlanta has been arrested more than a dozen times, mostly on drug charges.
Jail records show that Basil Eleby has been arrested repeatedly since 1995. Accused of starting the fire below the elevated highway, Eleby now faces charges of first-degree arson and first-degree property damage.
Sophia Bruner and Barry Thomas, both charged with criminal trespass, were arrested along with Eleby on Friday.
“We believe they were together when the fire was set and Eleby is the one who set the fire,” Deputy Insurance Commissioner Jay Florence said.
The fire sent flames and smoke high into the air Thursday from an area used to store state-owned construction materials and equipment. It burned so hot that the concrete and steel overpass disintegrated, crippling traffic in a city known for dreadful rush-hour congestion.
Florence would not discuss how the fire was started or why, saying those details would be released as the investigation progresses. Eleby’s bond was set at $200,000 pending his next court appearance on April 14.
Dozens of firefighters battling the roaring blaze beneath the roadway moved safely out of harm’s way amid telltale signs the roadway was breaking apart from the intense heat.
“They heard the cracking of the concrete,” Atlanta Fire Chief Joel Baker said. “They could see concrete was flying all over the place toward firefighters.”
Firefighters shut down the roadway before it fell and retreated safely without injury.
Experts in structural engineering said fires on highways and bridges rarely burn long enough or hot enough to cause a complete collapse — but it has happened. Intense heat can compromise even steel-reinforced concrete, said Lauren Stewart, director of the Structural Engineering and Materials Laboratory at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
“With fires, especially fires that burn for long periods and with high heat, you can see structures, anything from buildings to bridges, can have their material properties degrade,” Stewart said.
It’s happened before. In 1996, a fire in a big pile of tires beneath I-95 in Philadelphia left a span too weak to handle cars, shutting down 4 miles of the busy East Coast route.
Atlanta commuters struggling to find different routes or use mass transit had better get used to longer commutes: Repairs will take “at least several months,” said Russell McMurry, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation.
McMurry announced Friday that 350 feet of highway will need to be replaced in both directions on I-85, which carries about 400,000 cars a day through Atlanta and is one of the South’s most important north-south routes.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao promptly released $10 million for the initial repair work, and the Federal Highway Administration promised more in emergency repair funds. Officials gave no estimate of how much the job would cost.