Man charged with arson over fire that led to collapse of Atlanta highway bridge

PHOTO: Firefighters survey the section of an overpass that collapsed from a large fire on Interstate 85 in Atlanta, March 30, 2017. PlayDavid Goldman/AP Photo
WATCH Suspect charged with arson in fire blamed for collapse of Atlanta highway

A man has been charged with arson in connection with a fire that led to the collapse of a heavily-used highway overpass in Atlanta.

The man, Basil Eleby, had already been charged with first-degree criminal damage to property in connection with Thursday's blaze that led to the fall of a heavily-used Interstate 85 overpass.

The arson charge against Eleby was added Saturday. The suspect, who remains in Fulton County Jail, appeared in court Saturday morning where a judge set bond at $200,000. It's unclear if Eleby has entered a plea.

Eleby is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on April 14, according to ABC affiliate WSB-TV in Atlanta.

He was arrested Friday with two other suspects. One is a woman, identified earlier this week as Sophia Broner but whose name is spelled Brauer in the arrest affidavit for Eleby released Saturday by the Magistrate Court of Fulton County. The other suspect arrested with her is Barry Thomas. Both Thomas and the woman were charged with criminal trespass, according to Georgia Deputy Insurance Commissioner Jay Florence. Neither of the two had entered pleas as of Friday, and it was not clear Saturday if they remain in custody.

Police records show Eleby has had 20 arrests dating back to 2000, mostly for possessing and selling drugs and assault.

PHOTO: This booking photo provided by the Fulton County Jail on April 1, 2017 shows Basil Newman Eleby. Fulton County Jail via AP
This booking photo provided by the Fulton County Jail on April 1, 2017 shows Basil Newman Eleby.

The arrest affidavit for Eleby states that he said he passes through the area around the Interstate 85 overpass often on his way to work. He said that at about 4 p.m. on Thursday he met the woman and Thomas under the overpass where they discussed smoking crack cocaine together.

"They discussed smoking crack cocaine together," the affidavit said. "It was decided by Mr. Eleby that he would consume the drugs by himself."

According to the arrest affidavit, investigators also interviewed Thomas, who said he was with Eleby and Brauer under the bridge.

Thomas told authorities he watched Eleby "place a chair on top of a shopping cart, reach under the shopping cart and ignited it." He also said he woke up Brauer, who had gone to sleep, and they left the area, going in the opposite direction as Eleby, according to the arrest affidavit.

No cars were on the overpass and no injuries were reported when the portion of the highway collapsed during Thursday afternoon's rush hour after a massive fire underneath, according to Atlanta Fire Department spokesman Sgt. Cortez Stafford. Officials said firefighters at the scene saved lives by recognizing when the concrete overpass had cracked and was giving way, leading them to evacuate the area.

PHOTO: A massive fire burns underneath an overpass of Interstate 85 in Midtown as seen from an aerial view.WXIA-TV via USA TODAY NETWORK
A massive fire burns underneath an overpass of Interstate 85 in Midtown as seen from an aerial view.

Georgia Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry this week described the area under the overpass where the fire started as an area used "as a storage location for construction materials, equipment and supplies. The site was a secured area containing materials such as PVC piping, which is a stable, noncombustible material.”

Interstate 85 is a major thruway in the Atlanta metropolitan area, carrying 400,000 cars per day, according to the Georga Department of Transportation. The highway's closure is expected to cause travel nightmare in this heavily car-dependent city.

Officials are still determining the extent of damage and said there is no set timeline for the repairs. McMurry said it will take "at least several months" to rebuild. About 350 feet of the northbound road as well as 350 feet of the southbound road will have to be totally removed and replaced, he said.

"That is no small feat, but we're up to the challenge," McMurry told reporters Thursday.

The overpass collapse led Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to declare a state of emergency.

The Federal Highway Administration has awarded $10 million in “quick-release” funding to initiate the most critical repairs in the next few weeks. The "funds are considered a down payment on the costs of short-term repairs now, which can make long-term repair work possible in the weeks ahead," the Georgia Department of Transportation said in a statement.

ABC News' Amanda Maile, Janice McDonald, Dominick Proto, Emily Shapiro and Benjamin Stein contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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