(Adds confirmation of three arrests, details and
By Rich McKay
ATLANTA, March 31 Three people described as
transients were in custody Friday in connection with the fiery
collapse of a major interstate highway bridge running through
the heart of Atlanta, as officials said it would take months to
repair the damage.
No one was hurt when the span gave way on Thursday evening
as a fire raged beneath it, sending thick black smoke into the
air and briefly igniting a fireball before the structure fell in
on itself, snarling traffic.
Inspectors have determined that at least 700 feet (213
meters) of Interstate 85 must be replaced, including three
sections of the northbound bridge and three on the southbound
side, as well as their support columns, officials said.
"The repairs will take at least several months," State
Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry told a news
conference. "We are asking for the public's continued patience."
Three people were taken into custody in connection with the
fire, said Glenn Allen, a spokesman for the Georgia Insurance
and Safety Fire Commission. One suspect, Basil Eleby, was
charged with criminal damage to property; the others, Sophia
Bruner and Barry Thomas, were each charged with criminal
trespass, he said.
All appeared to be transients, Allen said.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao on Friday
directed federal officials to award $10 million to begin
Some 250,000 motorists use the highway each day to travel in
and out of downtown Atlanta, state officials said.
As the fire raged on Thursday, the smoke was so thick that
residents living nearby in the heart of Atlanta said they
thought a storm was coming or that the sun had set early.
The flames burned so fiercely that concrete cracked and
steel melted, even as dozens of firefighters battled the blaze,
The cause of the inferno remained unknown. McMurry said
construction materials belonging to the state, including PVC
pipes, were stored under the highway but would not have caught
fire on their own.
"We are certainly as eager as anyone to find out (what
caused it)," McMurry said.
Hours after the collapse, drivers were still struggling to
get off the highway. Government offices in Atlanta opened an
hour late to give people extra time to get to work.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York and
Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Editing by Andrew
Hay and Lisa Shumaker)