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Interstate bridge collapses during evening rush after massive fire on Atlanta freeway

ATLANTA — A five-lane overpass collapsed during evening rush hour after a massive fire broke out beneath a major expressway running through the heart of Atlanta, and yet miraculously, no lives were lost.

How did that happen?

In short, quick reactions by firefighters, astute early appraisal of what the fire might do and the luck of a fire station being near the source of the blaze.

The fire began Thursday evening under part of Interstate 85 near Piedmont Road in northeast Atlanta, causing an elevated section of the northbound interstate to collapse about 7 p.m.

“You could almost tell what was about to happen,” said Sgt. Cortez Stafford, a spokesman for the Atlanta Fire Department.

Soon after firefighters arrived, the overpass began to break apart.

“There were large chunks of concrete starting to come down,” Stafford told CNN. “I mean 200- to 300-pound chunks of concrete. We could see it dropping near our guys.”

At that point, he said, a fire department incident commander “made the call to back everyone up.”

“Within two to three minutes, a 100-foot section — 100 feet long, maybe 50 to 75 feet wide — came crashing down.”

The wall of fire rising up reached 40 feet high at times, causing power lines to fall into the streets.

Similarly, Stafford said, firefighters stopped car traffic on I-85 almost as soon as they arrived on the scene, sensing collapse of the overpass could be imminent. They could feel the amount of heat building up beneath the bridge, he said.

“I believe that saved a lot of lives,” Stafford said. “People were driving by, not paying attention, taking pictures with camera phones.

“My guys put a truck in the middle of the interstate and said, ‘Hey you can’t go by.’ ”

Firefighters also halted pedestrian traffic below and near the bridge.

According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, the area beneath that section of the expressway is “a secured area containing materials such as PVC piping which is a stable, non-combustible material.” Utilities use the piping to protect fiber optic and other electronic cables.

The damage will likely not be limited to just the northbound side of I-85.

According to the state DOT, early Friday, “a determination was made that the southbound sections of I-85 received damage from the fire requiring the replacement of those sections.”

More than 220,000 cars are estimated to drive that stretch of I-85 every day — one of the major north-south arteries in the Southeast.