ATLANTA — Two people who played a key role in rebuilding the Interstate 85 bridge that collapsed over Piedmont Road after a massive fire one year ago are walking us through the moments they heard about the collapse.
In an exclusive TV interview with Channel 2 investigative reporter Aaron Diamant, Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry recalled the dramatic evening of March 30, 2017.
“I just got home and the TV was on, and they were going live to Channel 2 and [NewsChopper 2] at the time showed the fire,” McMurry told Diamant.
McMurry watched a 100-foot section of the I-85 bridge over Piedmont Road collapse.
“To me, it was just a surreal experience,” McMurry said.
Looking back on one of the worst civil catastrophes in metro Atlanta history, McMurry again tipped his hat to first responders.
“If there had been an injury or a life lost, I mean, that’s just unimaginable to me the situation we’d be in,” McMurry said.
But there was little time to be thankful back then.
“It was all hands on deck,” said Dan Garcia, president of C.W. Matthews construction company.
Garcia sent crews to the site within hours, a full week before signing a contract.
“In this case, because of the trust and partnership, we just went to work,” Garcia told Diamant.
Demolition work began as soon as the flames went out. Contractors, their subcontractors, and suppliers stepped up. They worked around the clock to rebuild the battered bridge in just 44 days.
“This was a time to shine,” Garcia said. “I think we did a great job. It was pressure, but it was a good pressure.”
But pressure mounted on GDOT after investigators accused a homeless man, Basil Eleby, of setting fire to a chair that ignited a huge surplus cache of poorly secured, combustible, petroleum-based pipe coils, which the department had stored under the bridge for years.
“I think everybody recognizes, well, you probably don’t store those types of materials in that fashion in that location,” McMurry admitted to Diamant.
An ongoing National Transportation Safety Board investigation will likely lead to new nationwide storage rules. In the meantime, McMurry remains focused on the silver lining.
“I think [the rebuilding effort] really highlighted, at least at the federal level, how Georgia is one team. It doesn’t really matter if it’s local or state. It’s one Georgia when we have incidents like this,” McMurry said.
McMurry told Diamant that he believes the release of the NTSB report is imminent, but he does not believe it will tell GDOT anything it doesn't already know.
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