Key witness charged after I-85 fire: 'I have no reason to lie'

by: Mark Winne Updated:

ATLANTA - It's the question everyone wants answered: How did the fire start that caused I-85 to collapse??

It will affect the metro area for months, and now, for the first time, we're hearing from a key witness who was one of the people arrested.

[GDOT officials give completion date for I-85]

“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.’”

[BRIDGE COLLAPSE: Part of Piedmont Road reopened]

Sophia Brauer said she and her boyfriend, Barry Andrew Thomas, had been staying for a short time under the I-85 overpass that later collapsed.

Investigators at first viewed them as suspects

“We were homeless,” Brauer told Channel 2 investigative reporter Mark Winne. “Why would I want to burn up my own spot?”

But investigators quickly realized they were witnesses in a case that has been watched worldwide.

[Officials say I-85 bridge repairs will take months]

“Were they friendly?” Winne asked Brauer.

“Yes, sir,” Brauer said.

“And you were cooperative?” Winne asked her.

“Yes, sir,” Brauer said.

Brauer indicated she had seen Basil Eleby put what she believed to be crack in a cart shortly before the fire that would cause the bridge collapse.

She said Thomas saw Eleby pile a sofa on top of a plastic shopping cart and then reach underneath.

Brauer said sometime later she saw the sofa on fire.

“It was all burning. It was hot as hell. I'm talking about the Target cart was melting,” Brauer told Winne.

She said the sofa was flush up against the spools of tubing that are stored beneath the overpass.

“I was praying nobody died, you know?” Brauer said.

Brauer said investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and from the Atlanta Fire Department and the state fire marshal’s office questioned her and Thomas for about seven hours, gave them citations for misdemeanor criminal trespass and let them leave.

The state fire marshal said Eleby is charged with arson and criminal damage to property.

According to a document, Eleby has maintained he left the area before the fire started.

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