Shock, then memes: How Atlanta reacted to the I-85 collapse

As if traffic in the city couldn’t get any worse
Atlanta I-85 collapse
A view of the aftermath of the I-85 collapse from the Buford Connector on Friday morning

Photograph by Jennifer Zyman

In January, Atlantans stocked up on the traditional bread and milk as they prepared for what they feared would be the next Snowpocalypse. And then, nothing happened. No one could have predicted the next Atlanta disaster would be caused not by ice, but by fire.

Atlanta Police said Friday that fire crews were dispatched at 6:12 p.m. Thursday to reports of a blaze below the I-85 North overpass near Piedmont Road. As thick plumes of heavy black smoke blanketed the freeway, reporters, police, and fire teams rushed to the area to determine what had happened.

The fire brought traffic to a standstill, and Atlantans took to social media to share what they were witnessing. Early reporting stated the cause was a vehicle fire, but as many correctly suspected, a standard vehicle alone couldn’t caused such a massive fireball. The plume of smoke was seen from as far away as Roswell.

Then, just after 7 p.m., the section of 85 just above the fire suddenly collapsed.

As crews battled the fire, information about the cause slowly started to trickle in. Google StreetView images from before the fire showed what Georgia Department of Transportation commissioner Russell McMurry later confirmed as high-density polyethylene piping, which had been stored under the bridge for at least ten years. Investigators still don’t know what caused the piping to ignite.

As night fell, investigators examined the wreckage. Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for Fulton County. Speaking from the Capitol, Mayor Kasim Reed confirmed that the fire was not suspected to be a terrorist attack, and that there was no clear time frame for when the interstate would be repaired.

There were no injuries or fatalities reported as a result of the fire and collapse. And once the shock settled, the memes began rolling in:

Due to the i85 bridge collapse there will be a new Marta service #atlanta #i85 #bridgecollapse #atl #marta

A post shared by Supercars of Atlanta (@supercarsofatlanta17) on

So what happens next? Commuters were urged to telecommute, take MARTA, and carpool this morning. MARTA CEO Keith Parker announced extended service through at least the weekend, and the transit system has already seen a 25% increase in ridership. A Gwinnett County spokesperson says Gwinnett County Transit buses serving downtown Atlanta were forced to take different routes, nearly doubling the normal commute time. Both north- and southbound segments of 85 will have to be replaced, and the repair work is likely to take several months.

Hang in there, ATLiens. We’ll get through this together.

Update 4/4/17: GDOT has announced it will re-open I-85 on June 15, according to the AJC. In the meantime, lighter spring break traffic and Monday’s reopening of Piedmont Road has stopped the city from falling into complete Mad Max-style chaos . . . so far.