The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its final report regarding the 2017 collapse of a bridge in Atlanta, Georgia. Not surprisingly, given that a structural fire preceded the bridge failure, the agency listed heat from the ignition of materials as the cause of the fire and collapse. The NTSB also noted that the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) likely contributed to the fire by storing construction materials under the bridge.
Fortunately, no one was injured when the overpass collapsed, although officials have acknowledged the possibility that the incident could have turned into a tragedy, given that the area of road where the bridge collapsed had 10 traffic lanes. This and other recent bridge collapses have highlighted how deadly structural failures can be.
Man Initially Charged with Arson in I-85 Overpass Fire
The Atlanta bridge collapse occurred on March 30, 2017, at around 6:05 p.m. when construction materials stored beneath a bridge caught fire. Approximately an hour later, a 92-foot-long section of an overpass on I-85 collapsed. That particular section had four northbound and four southbound travel lanes with one high-occupancy vehicle lane also in each direction. An additional five bridge spans also required replacement due to heat damage.
According to reports, Basil Eleby, who was homeless, was using drugs beneath the bridge and started the fire on a chair on a shopping cart. That fire then spread to the materials stored beneath the bridge. Eleby initially faced arson charges, but those charges against him will be dismissed if he completes a court program focused on mental health.
The fire caused traffic chaos for six weeks while workers repaired the affected section of the Interstate.
NTSB Finds GDOT’s Actions Likely Contributed to Atlanta Bridge Collapse
In its report, the NTSB noted that GDOT stored 76 reels of “high-density polyethylene conduit and nine racks of fiberglass conduit” beneath the bridge. The materials, which were to be used in a project that started in 2007 but was never completed, were originally stored at a different location but then moved under the bridge. According to the report, GDOT chose the location under the bridge—where the materials remained for five years—because it was protected from the sun, had a fence and was owned by the state.
“The large amount of combustible material being stored underneath this section of the I-85 bridge increased the fire risk to the bridge,” the NTSB wrote.
GDOT’s own guidance for storing materials beneath bridges states that inflammable materials or harmful chemicals cannot be stored within 200 feet of a roadway open to traffic, but does not specifically define “inflammable.” Typically, however, “inflammable” is taken to mean materials that can easily catch or be set on fire.
The NTSB concluded that GDOT’s decision to store construction materials beneath the bridge increased the risk of a fire. Furthermore, GDOT failed to conduct a fire risk assessment after storing the materials at that location.
“Although catastrophic fires fueled by materials stored underneath bridges are relatively rare events, the loss of this structure demonstrates what can happen if bridge owners are not vigilant about monitoring and controlling such material,” the NTSB said.
Following the bridge collapse, GDOT reportedly said the storage of such materials under a bridge is common, but The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found multiple states that do not allow such a practice. Furthermore, AJC also reportedly found that the locked gate that protected the materials was sometimes left unlocked.
GDOT Responds to NTSB Report on Bridge Failure
Following the NTSB’s release of the report, GDOT released a statement noting that immediately after the Atlanta bridge collapse the agency changed its storage practices, including no longer allowing flammable or combustible material to be stored beneath bridges.
“We fully participated in the temperature of this document,” GDOT said. “We are hopeful that these recommendations from the NTSB will be instrumental for other relevant agencies and Departments of Transportation across the country to prevent instances like this from happening elsewhere.”
Officials in Georgia were lucky that no one was harmed in the fire and bridge collapse. The recent bridge collapse in Florida was a reminder of how deadly such structural failures can be, with six fatalities and at least nine people injured. That collapse involved a pedestrian bridge that was designed to connect Florida International University to Sweetwater. Lawsuits have since been filed against the companies responsible for building the pedestrian crossing.