Burning question: Why store flammable material under I-85?

As any of my previous employers will tell you, I’m pretty good at burning bridges.

Motorists pass by a colossal fire that caused the collapse of I-85 in Midtown Atlanta Thursday evening. (Photo by Jackson Klinefelter)

But I can’t hold a candle — or any other flaming device — to Basil Eleby, 39, the fellow charged with first-degree arson in the conflagration that took down an elevated stretch of Atlanta interstate.

Georgia Department of Transportation officials said Tuesday they expect to reopen I-85 in Buckhead by June 15.

I’ll believe that when I drive over it.

When news of the fire broke, I was headed to Asheville, N.C., a mountain town that seems to be the pleasant offspring of an REI outlet and a brewery.

My first thought was “I picked a great time to not be at work.”

Then I pondered “how can a concrete and steel bridge burn?”

Bridges shouldn’t melt, of course, but the state was storing huge coils of highly flammable plastic conduit under this one.

Traffic’s always bad on I-285, but on my way back from Asheville Monday an extra hour was added to my trip as the Perimeter tried to cope with even more cars.

Things weren’t much better Tuesday morning.

On my slow crawl to work I had time to visually inspect every overpass I passed. I’m pleased to report the Department of Transportation isn’t storing dynamite anywhere under Spaghetti Junction.

In a perfect world, public officials would answer simple questions and admit that storing flammable material under a bridge is a bad idea.

But why admit a mistake when you can blame a homeless guy with a long criminal record?

Eleby is the perfect scapegoat. According to witness Sophia Brauer, he stacked a sofa on a plastic Target shopping cart near the spools of plastic before smoking crack cocaine.

Brauer told investigators she confronted Eleby during the fire.

“I ran into him by the dumpster and that black smoke was coming up. I said, ‘Oh my God, Basil, look at that!’ He looked at me. He gave this evil smile and said, ‘Ha, ha, ha. I did that.'”

I’m not a defense attorney, but it can’t help when a witness describes your client cackling with evil as something 250,000 people use a day is destroyed.

Brauer and her boyfriend, Barry Thomas, who were living under the interstate, face misdemeanor charges of trespassing in the fire.

You’d think the DOT would know homeless people appreciate overpasses and bridges almost as much as the people that drive on them. Elevated slabs of concrete do a good job of keeping rain and sun off people that have nowhere to go.

Government excels at many things, including losing track of stuff.

A few years ago, the City of Atlanta couldn’t explain what happened to 10,000 missing water meters, including some that weighed 700 pounds. Or an $80,000 backhoe.

The state said the area under I-85 was used to store “normal highway construction materials” and it was “chain-link fenced and locked.”

But photos show sections of the fence were completely torn down. Properly securing highly flammable material under an interstate clearly wasn’t a high priority.

I don’t expect much from crack addicts living under bridges. I used to expect more from the people that build them.


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