ATLANTA (FOX 5 Atlanta) - Saturday marks the two-year anniversary of the massive fire that engulfed a bridge along Interstate 85, causing a large section of the interstate to collapse near Piedmont Road.
That day, SKYFOX 5 was flying north toward Chamblee when it spotted thick black smoke. This is nothing uncommon for the crew of the Bell 206b Jet Ranger. They have seen their fair share of car fires, but this one was different. The smoke plume was larger and black as night.
The fire quickly became visible, gathering power and intensity from the combustible materials stored under the bridge. It soon grew to be large enough they could be seen from the FOX 5 Atlanta tower near Emory University.
At 7:06 p.m., a span of the northbound overpass collapsed. Officials said they were able to pull all the firefighters out from under the overpass just before the collapse after noticing signs of fatigue in the structure. People stuck in the immediate area said they heard a loud rumble as the structure crashed to the ground. No one was injured, thanks to how the first responders handled the situation.
As the sun began to set, the mild spring evening temperatures would further aid in cooling of the concrete damaged by hours of intense heat which melted the steel supports, causing the inevitable collapse.
The inferno itself would actually burn into the night, only extinguished thanks to the help of firefighters at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Several foam trucks were called to the scene to dampen the remaining flames. Firefighters also worked to make sure the fire didn't spread to a nearby Goodwill store or to the MARTA rail yard.
It wouldn't be until morning when the remaining structure cooled that G-DOT engineers would be able to fully assess the damage. Until then, officials turned their attention to diverting traffic off onto alternative routes and the arduous task of trying to figure out how the 250,000 cars which typically travel that portion of I-85 will reach their destinations safely for the Friday morning commute.
So, how could they catch fire and what sparked it? Those answers would come from the Atlanta Police Department early Friday evening. Following up on witness reports, police said they were able to identify three people who were seen under the overpass shortly before the fire started. Basil Eleby, Sophia Broner and Barry Thomas, all reportedly homeless, were identified by police. Broner and Thomas were cited for criminal trespass, a misdemeanor. Meanwhile, police pointed to Eleby as the one who set the fire which would lead to the unimaginable disaster.
“They used available materials to start the fire. We got reports that several individuals were in the area. We interviewed those; that led to a third,” said Jay Florence, Deputy Insurance, and Safety Fire Commissioner.
Investigators said Eleby had been smoking crack before he lit a "chair set on top of a shopping cart" on fire, causing it to spread to the nearby plastic conduits and the loss of I-85 through one of its busiest areas.
By Monday, most of the damaged overpass had been taken down and were being reduced to rubble.
"I think they're going at a record pace and I'm hoping this is a pace we can continue as we strive to restore and rebuild this important stretch of interstate," Gov. Nathan Deal said.
Piedmont Road was reopened and the southbound lanes of the Buford Connector soon followed, easing some of the congestion.
Also, a deadline was set to reopen: June 15.
Meanwhile, more details were emerging about the man who allegedly set the fire. Eleby frequented the area of Piedmont Road near I-85. Those who knew him said he slept in a car, did odd jobs and was trusted by nearby businessmen. Some described him as a nice and lovely guy.
Anthem Automotive Service Manager David Walker knew the homeless man.
“At one point he came to me and asked for a couple of bucks for some food. And I said look if you're gonna buy a beer with it just tell me and I'll buy you a beer. If you want food, I'll buy you food. Just be honest with me,” said Walker. “I could trust him with my kids. I know that much.”
The '98 Mercedes where associates said Basil slept at night was in a lot owned by Menge Gizachew and even let Elerby use his business bathroom to wash up on a regular basis.
Both men said they did not know about Eleby's guilt or innocence, but they believed the street-smart homeless man who frequently talked about his mother, should not be the only one held responsible for the inferno that led to the bridge collapse. His lawyers agreed going further to say Eleby was a "scapegoat" by government officials to avoid public scrutiny and accountability.
He appeared in court on April 18, 2017, entered a not guilty plea, and was granted a $10,000 consent signature bond. He was released the next day and was checked into a facility where he received a mental health evaluation, counseling, and drug treatment.
While Eleby worked his way through the legal system, crews worked around the clock with $3 million in incentives hanging in the balance. Columns were formed and set. Soon after, cross supports were put in place and before long concrete was being poured to form the new lanes. Progress was noticeable and moved quickly.
“When this started it was inconceivable it could be done this quick,” said the Dan Garcia, the President of CW Matthews.
On Friday, May 11, 2017, around 7 p.m., more than a month ahead of the deadline, the northbound lanes of I-85 reopened. A day later, the southbound lanes.
While the city was recovering, it appeared the main suspect in the arson case was too. Four months in an addiction treatment facility seemed to do well for Eleby. He had gone from more than a decade of homelessness, living in a car, to a clean-shaven, well-groomed man in a business suit as he made a court appearance for an arraignment on August 14, 2017.
“I just want to say thanks to everybody for supporting me. My lawyers, the people at the church, Pastor Rice... you guys have been doing a good job with me," Elegy marveled.
But by early fall of 2017, Eleby had relapsed on his drug habit, failing a court-mandated drug test. After a second negative test, Superior Court Judge Constance Russell ruled he could stay in his drug treatment program and out of jail.
In court, Judge Russell told Eleby, "If you flunk a drug test again, your bond will be revoked."
After the hearing, Eleby told FOX 5’s Aungelique Proctor in an exclusive interview he let a lot of people down by failing the earlier drug test, and he is disappointed himself.
Eleby said he has been addicted to drugs for 15 years and breaking the addiction is hard.
Two months later, his case would be transferred to Behavioral Court, averting a possible 25-year prison sentence if found guilty. Eleby was put into a rigorous 18-month program, which if successfully completed, would mean the arson case would be dropped.
The formerly homeless man still maintains his innocence and is grateful to so many people who believed in him.
"Even in my most drug-induced state, there is no way that one man could have started that fire, plus bridges aren't engineered to burn that fast," Eleby said standing with three of his four pro bono attorneys.
Two year later, Eleby is still recovering. In August of 2018, the 41-year-old moved into his own apartment in East Point. At the time he said he had been clean for eight and a half months and cannot envision ever going back to drugs and alcohol. The felony against him will be dropped if he's able to successfully complete an 18-month diversion program .
Eleby aslo is working part-time at the law firm that defended him, and told Atlanta Magazine last year he was training to be a certified forklift operation and possibly training as a peer recovery support specialist.
Officials estimate the repair cost at around $16.6 million, 90 percent which was paid for by the federal government. The disaster has changed the way materials are stored by transportation departments across the country and serves as an example of a quick recovery.