Suspect in Atlanta’s I-85 bridge collapse charged with arson

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Emergency personnel work the scene of a bridge collapse at I-85 in Atlanta, Georgia

Emergency personnel work the scene of a bridge collapse at I-85 in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 30, 2017. Photo by Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Reuters

A man suspected of starting a fire on March 30 that caused about 180 feet of Atlanta’s Interstate 85 bridge to collapse during rush hour made his first appearance in court on Saturday.

Basil Eleby was cuffed and in Fulton County Jail clothes as he was charged in Magistrate Court with two felonies — arson and criminal damage to property, according to local news reports.

Georgia’s Department of Transportation on Friday had said the fire started at one of their storage units, which usually holds plastic, non-combustible conduit, but investigators have not revealed how it began.

Giant flames wafted from under the bridge on Thursday afternoon as black smoke plumed hundreds of feet into the sky and both sides of the busy highway came to a standstill. All lanes have been closed and will remain that way indefinitely, sending the city’s commute into chaos.

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That stretch of I-85 sees an estimated 250,000 vehicles a day, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.

As schools closed and employers told people to work from home, Gov. Nathan Deal called a state of emergency in the county and secured $10 million in federal funds to start reconstruction.

Bridge inspectors have asked for patience from local residents, saying they will have to remove and replace at least 700 feet of roadway, including support columns.

“The big question on everyone’s mind is, ‘How long with this take to repair?’” Georgia Commissioner of Transportation Russell McMurry said at a news conference Friday. “We’re not able to give you a firm estimate at this moment but you should know that this will take at least several months to get this rebuilt.”

Eleby has had more than a dozen run-ins with police since 2000, according to county documents, on charges ranging from the possession and sale of cocaine and marijuana to simple battery and assault.

A local news station reported that Eleby asked to waive Saturday’s hearing, but Judge James Altman denied the request and waged whether the damage done should reflect in the bail.

“That would amount to a couple hundred million dollars,” said Altman. “My second inclination, on thinking about it, some kind of compensation to the victims is appropriate, but again, even at a dollar a person, that would amount to several million dollars.”

Then he issued a $200,000 bond and set a preliminary hearing for April 14.

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