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Driving from Charlotte to Atlanta? Expect major snarls after fiery bridge collapse

In this aerial image made from a video provided by WSB-TV, a large fire that caused an overpass on Interstate 85 to collapse burns in Atlanta on Thursday. Witnesses said troopers were telling cars to turn around on the bridge because they were concerned about its integrity. Minutes later, the bridge collapsed.
In this aerial image made from a video provided by WSB-TV, a large fire that caused an overpass on Interstate 85 to collapse burns in Atlanta on Thursday. Witnesses said troopers were telling cars to turn around on the bridge because they were concerned about its integrity. Minutes later, the bridge collapsed. AP

Drivers heading from Charlotte to Atlanta on Interstate 85 can expect significant delays after a massive fire caused an interstate bridge to collapse during rush hour in Atlanta on Thursday.

The bridge collapsed just minutes after witnesses said police halted traffic and turned cars away from the crumbling overpass, The Associated Press reported. Officials said no one was hurt despite dramatic images of massive flames and towering plumes of smoke.

All lanes on the interstate remained blocked on Thursday night, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The interstate was closed indefinitely, and Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency, according to the newspaper.

I-85 is closed in both directions from the I-75/Brookwood split to the North Druid Hills exit, the Journal-Constitution reported.

Drivers northbound on I-85 from the south side of Atlanta will be diverted to northbound I-75 at Brookwood near 17th Street. Drivers southbound on I-85 north of Atlanta will be diverted to northbound Ga. 400.

I-285 and I-20 are both open to traffic and are the best alternatives for drivers to use, if possible, according to the newspaper.

At 11:20 p.m., Georgia’s top transportation official said there’s no way to tell when the highway can be safely reopened to traffic in either direction, the AP reported. Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said his agency will have to have to evaluate and adjust to the situation.

The interstate, which the AP said carries 250,000 cars per day, is a major thoroughfare for traffic heading north and south through Atlanta. Georgia State Patrol Commissioner Mark McDonough said the bridge collapse effectively “puts a cork in the bottle.”

For traffic updates, visit www.dot.ga.gov.

The impact on traffic long-term was not immediately known, but on Thursday night traffic was bumper to bumper on nearby surface streets as people scrambled to find alternate routes, according to the AP.

The bridge collapsed at about 7 p.m. on I-85 northbound just south of Georgia Route 400 near Piedmont Road, Atlanta fire spokesman Sgt. Cortez Stafford said. No injuries were reported.

Mayor Kasim Reed said late Thursday he’d spoken with the FBI “and at this time there’s no evidence of terrorism,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Reed said city officials would be working to assess the bridge throughout the night.

“This is as serious a transportation crisis as we could have,” Reed told the Journal-Constitution. “The governor has been leading and we have been acting on it. Our primary concern, first and most important, is that no one has lost their life. And as we stand here right now, we think that’s the situation.”

Stafford said a cause of the fire can’t be determined at this time because inspectors can’t get under the bridge due to structural concerns.

“The entire bridge is compromised,” Stafford told the Journal-Constitution. “Right now, it’s still dangerous to go under there.”

Deal told reporters the cause of the fire is not yet known, but “the speculation I’ve heard is that there are some PVC products that caught fire.”

All MARTA trains are running as normal and have not been affected by the fire, a MARTA spokesman said. “MARTA continues to work closely with our state and local partners to ensure that residents and visitors can safely reach their destinations,” spokesman Eric Burton told the Journal-Constitution.

MARTA will offer extended service at least through the weekend, MARTA CEO Keith Parker tweeted.

Atlanta police were working on a traffic plan for Friday morning, Officer Stephanie Brown told an Atlanta TV station. But Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Natalie Dale said the interstate will be closed in both directions “for the foreseeable future,” the Journal-Constitution reported.

Many interstate tractor-trailer drivers use I-285 rather than taking I-85 through the city, according to the newspaper. But the closing of I-85 will certainly push traffic onto other interstates, potentially scrambling traffic there, the Journal-Constitution reported.

Delta Air Lines said it will “work with customers on a case-by-case basis to accommodate them if they’re running late as a result of any ensuing traffic issues,” according to the newspaper.

The Atlanta-based airline also said it encourages its employees to monitor traffic reports and “use their best judgment in safely commuting to their jobs,” spokesman Morgan Durrant told the paper.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday warned people to allow extra time heading southbound or to take MARTA.

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak

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