The incident began around 6 p.m. but quickly erupted into something more as large flames enveloped the northbound lanes on both sides and dark smoke rose from under the Buford-Spring Connector.
Disastrous but not tragic
Part of the interstate bridge just south of Georgia 400 and Piedmont Road eventually collapsed and traffic was brought to a standstill. (Click here to see video of the collapse)
Despite the destruction of a heavily-trafficked portion of Atlanta roadway Sgt. Cortez Stafford with Atlanta Fire Rescue reported no injuries. Still, the cause of the fire and collapse have not yet been determined. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said city officials have spoken with the FBI and "there is no evidence that this is related to terrorism."
"It's going to take some time to do a thorough assessment to determine what damage has been done to that section of the interstate," Reed said.
A 'State of Emergency'
Gov. Deal declared a state of emergency for Fulton County and urged drivers to avoid the large section of I-85 if at all possible. State government agencies will delay opening until 10 a.m. and employees able to telecommute are encouraged to do so.
Friday morning, Deal spoke with acting deputy director of the Federal Highway Administration Butch Waidelich, GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mark McDonough and other officials to receive a full briefing on the collapse.
"The fact that no lives were lost is a blessing, and I'm grateful for the courage, hard work and tireless efforts by our state and local first responders. I'm also thankful for the timely response from the federal government. Their expedited assistance will allow GDOT, city officials and private contractors to begin work immediately. The state of Georgia, City of Atlanta and federal government are committed to an expedited and safe resolution of this disaster," Deal said in a statement Friday morning. "Despite our coordinated efforts, this will be a long process. This is due, in part, to the fact that bridge beams must be cast, poured, tested, transported and individually installed. During this time, public safety is our chief priority and primary concern. With your help, we will be better able to ensure the safety of motorists, travelers, first responders and construction crews.”
PHOTOS: Fire burning under Atlanta Interstate (story continues under the gallery)
Atlanta Fire Rescue appeared to have gotten the fire under control by 8 p.m. Drivers were being re-routed down the highway to nearby exits. 11Alive TrafficTracker Crash Clark said drivers should avoid I-85 South and North into town.
1996 solution to a 2017 problem?
Reed said city officials will look back to the 1996 Olympics' plans to help determine the best way to handle the traffic situation in the coming weeks.
"We actually handled the Olympics very nicely in Atlanta and I really think that is the closet comparison from a traffic standpoint with what we're going to be going through over the next four to six weeks," Reed said.
Officials urged commuters to consider taking MARTA as crews work to repair I-85. State officials and Fulton County Commission Chair John Eaves echoed this suggestion in later interviews.
Schools, government offices react
Atlanta Public Schools issued a statement saying that its schools would operate on a normal schedule on Friday.
"The district is working in coordination with city and state officials to ensure smooth operations tomorrow," said APS spokesperson Kimberly Willis Green. "APS is working on a transportation plan to move buses to the North Atlanta cluster to ensure buses are available to transport students in the morning. We are asking that parents and guardians be patient as we strive to deliver the highest quality of service given these circumstances. We are asking staff to make arrangements to come in early to receive students."
However, DeKalb County Schools notified 11Alive that their district will not be open Friday. Twelve-month employees only should report to work.
City of Atlanta government offices said they would be delayed until 10 a.m. Friday. They issued a statement from their offices saying:
The City of Atlanta will have a delayed start of 10:00 a.m. on Friday, March 31, 2017. All essential and emergency personnel should report to work at their regularly-scheduled time on Friday, March 31, 2017. All non-essential employees should report at 10:00 a.m. If you have a question about whether or not you are an essential employee, please contact your manager.
The Municipal Court of Atlanta will also have a delayed start of 10:00 a.m.
Fulton County Chairman John Eaves issued a statement saying:
"I am closely monitoring the situation related to the I-85 fire and bridge collapse. Fulton County has offered our support to the Georgia Department of Transportation and are working closely with the City of Atlanta. The staff of the Atlanta-Fulton Emergency Management Agency have been activated to assist.
We ask that commuters avoid the area while public safety personnel continue their response. Businesses should allow employees flexibility during commutes tomorrow and in coming days and weeks. I also encourage commuters to take advantage of MARTA, which will offer extended service.
Our special thanks to the firefighters and police officers on scene, whose quick work helped keep citizens safe during this unprecedented incident."