Basil Newman Eleby from a 2014 arrest (Courtesy: Fulton County Jail)
ATLANTA - Georgia Department of Transportation crews have been working around the clock to clear debris and reopen roadways after a massive fire caused a portion of Interstate 85 to collapse, crippling traffic in both directions of the busy highway indefinitely. The DOT said their goal is to reopen Piedmont Road by Tuesday morning.
One of three people arrested for the fiery ordeal appeared in court Saturday morning. During an 11 a.m. hearing, Basil Eleby, 39, was charged with first-degree criminal damage to property and first-degree arson. His bond is set at $200,000. A second court hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on April 14. Until then, he will remain in custody at the Fulton County Jail.
Sophia Broner and Barry Thomas were also cited with criminal trespass charge, a misdemeanor. The state fire marshal’s office said the two men and one woman are believed to be homeless.
A warrant for the main suspect in the I-85 fire details how a " chair set on top of a shopping cart" was set on fire. FOX 5 obtained a copy of the arrest warrant, which shows statements made by the alleged suspects detailing that Eleby allegedly was using cocaine, and set a chair and shopping cart on fire.
Authorities told FOX 5 witnesses placed the trio at the bridge when the fire started. Thursday's fire led to the eventual collapse of one of the spans and damaged at least three other spans.
“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 would not elaborate on the types of materials used, or why the individuals started the fire, or any motive, or where exactly on the bridge the fire started.
The DOT said it will take at least several months to repair I-85, where the intense fire caused a section of the elevated northbound lanes to collapse during the Thursday evening rush hour.
“We are not able to give you a firm estimate at this moment, but this will take at least several months to get this rebuilt,” DOT Commissioner Russell McMurry said at a news conference Friday after inspectors got a closer look at the damage.
The DOT said that in addition to the collapse of the northbound lanes, damage to the southbound lanes was so extensive that a portion of those lanes must also be replaced. According to McMurry, three sections of the northbound lanes and three sections of the southbound lanes will have to be replaced.
"That's a total of about 350-feet northbound and 350-feet southbound that will have to be totally replaced," McMurry said. "That is no small feat, but we're up for the challenge."
Commissioner McMurry said workers have begun design work for the repair project, but it's still too early to tell exactly how long the construction will take and how long I-85 will remain closed in the area. The Secretary of Transportation authorized a release of $10 million to help advance the replacement of the damaged area.
Demolition of the damaged sections took place throughout the weekend.
"We're in the process to determine the extent of the damage," McMurry said.
The morning after the interstate collapsed, commuters dealt with traffic chaos as they tried to navigate around the damage. Aerial video showed heavy backups along I-285 near Spaghetti Junction. I-285 is one of the primary alternate routes divers were advised to use to get around the I-85 closure.
Authorities blocked on ramps to I-85 south inside the Perimeter, and traffic was flowing smoothly on I-85 north of the collapse scene as the sun came up.
I-85 remains closed from Interstate 75 to Georgia 400. Traffic is being diverted off at those points. Piedmont Road also remains blocked between Lindbergh Drive and Cheshire Bridge Road.
The fire broke out around 6 p.m. Thursday. Fire officials believe giant spools of plastic utility conduits that were being stored under the overpass fueled the bulk of the heavy fire. Officials say the material had been there since 2006 or 2007, and that it is not combustible. The DOT said it was surrounded by a chain linked fence and locked.
Fire officials said at least two full alarms were struck to help fight the fire. 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 overpass collapsed to the ground.
PHOTOS: I-85 fire and overpass collapse
Firefighters worked to keep the fire from spreading to a nearby Goodwill store. Foam trucks from Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport were eventually brought in to smother the remaining embers.
The dark plume of smoke could be seen from all around the city.
Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for Fulton County to help free up funds. Meanwhile, Fulton County officials said they have activated the Atlanta-Fulton Emergency Management Agency to assist.
MARTA said it is increasing rail service to help ease the commute while Gwinnett County Transit said it will reroute service using Interstates 285 and 20.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation.