ATLANTA (CNN) — The man accused of arson in a massive fire that collapsed part of Interstate 85 in Atlanta discussed smoking crack with two others before the blaze started, an arrest affidavit shows.
Basil Eleby is charged with first-degree arson and first-degree criminal damage to property, authorities said.
Eleby and his two companions, Sophia Bruner and Barry Thomas, are believed to be homeless. They were arrested in connection with Thursday evening’s fire, said Jay Florence, the state safety fire commissioner.
An affidavit obtained by CNN shows Eleby told investigators that they talked about smoking crack cocaine under the highway overpass.
He however decided to do the drug without his companions, and left before the fire started, the affidavit said, citing his statement.
“They described smoking crack cocaine together, it was decided by Mr. Eleby that he would consume the drugs by himself,” the affidavit states.
There were no deaths or injuries in the fire and collapse, but the bridge disrupted a major thoroughfare with five lanes in each direction that run through downtown Atlanta. All five lanes in each direction are shut down for the foreseeable future.
Investigators believe Eleby started the fire intentionally and his companions, both charged with trespassing, were with him, authorities said.
Florence didn’t say how investigators came to suspect the three or say anything about a motive. Neither did he say how the fire started.
The region, already accustomed to gridlock, is struggling to face its new commuting reality. It will take at least several months to rebuild the collapsed and otherwise damaged portions of I-85, Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said.
The closure comes as hordes of spring break vacationers are poised to drive though the region’s urban hub.
The fire ignited in a fenced-in area under the expressway, where the state stores construction materials, McMurry said. Those materials include HDPE — high-density polyethylene — pipes used in the “traffic management, cabling, fiber-optic and wire network,” he said.
Stored for years
The material had been stored there “for some time, probably since 2006 or (2007),” McMurry said.
HDPE pipes encase and protect cables, and are widely used in the transportation industry to build “smart” highways that provide information to drivers, control traffic signal lights and tollways. The pipes are also used in the distribution of natural gas and by telecommunication companies such as AT&T and Google Fiber.
The flammability of HDPE is relatively low, said Tony Radoszewski, president of the Plastics Pipe Institute, a trade group based in Irving, Texas. HDPE would have to be exposed to a high-temperature flame for a considerable amount of time to burn, he said.
“Somebody had to start a fire. It doesn’t combust by itself, it needs fuel,” Radoszewski told CNN. “Someone had to do it. It’s not like someone would have dropped a match and it started.”
Investigators are still working to determine how the fire started.
“We’re as eager to learn the cause of this fire as anyone,” McMurry said.
Eleby is the only detained, and is being held on $200,000 bond. His next court date is April 14.
‘Highway fell with a big ‘kaboom’
Firefighters were alerted at 6:12 p.m. Thursday to the blaze under I-85 in northeast Atlanta.
They rushed to the scene and fought the flames at street level as motorists on the elevated interstate drove through thick black smoke billowing up from below.
Soon, a massive fireball engulfed the overpass.
Minutes later, around 7 p.m., “the highway fell with a big ‘kaboom.’ (It) knocked our guys back,” said Stafford, the fire department spokesman.
Amid the rubble of the fallen pavement, firefighters continued their work. The extra volume of water from the airport trucks helped bring the fire under control, Stafford said.
‘Transportation crisis’ looms
Three sections of northbound I-85 and three sections of southbound I-85 will have to be replaced, McMurry said. That’s 350 feet of highway — nearly a football field — in each direction, he said. Demolition of these sections started Friday and will last into Monday.
Officials scrambled to come up with alternate routes and encouraged riders to use public transit. Compounding long-term gridlock, the Atlanta Braves will play this season at their new stadium along the I-285 bypass.
“I think it’s as serious a transportation crisis as we could have,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said Thursday.
MARTA, Atlanta’s rail and bus system, will offer extended service through the weekend to take some of the burden off residents.