I-85 collapse: Three arrested after major fire under Atlanta highway

A man has been arrested on suspicion of intentionally setting a huge fire that brought down part of an elevated interstate highway in Atlanta, a collapse that is expected to complicate traffic for months in one of the nation’s most congested cities.

Basil Eleby and two other people — all believed by investigators to be homeless — have been arrested in connection with Thursday evening’s fire under Interstate 85, Jay Florence, deputy insurance and safety fire commissioner, said Friday.

The fire, which started in a state-owned storage lot under the highway, caused part of northbound I-85 to collapse Thursday evening — injuring no one — and also damaged the southbound portion, forcing the closure of all five lanes in each direction for the foreseeable future.

Eleby has been charged with first-degree criminal damage to property, Florence said. The other two — Sophia Bruner and Barry Thomas — have been charged with criminal trespassing.

Investigators believe Eleby started the fire intentionally, and that Bruner and Thomas were with him, Florence said.

Florence didn’t say how investigators came to suspect the trio, or say anything about a motive. Neither did he say how the fire started.

Though all three suspects were taken to jail, only Eleby remained in custody Friday night, Atlanta fire department spokesman Cortez Stafford said.

The fire began in a fenced-in lot where the state stored high-density plastic pipes frequently used in the transportation industry. The collapse and other damage is expected to shut that portion of I-85 — one of the Southeast’s major north-south arteries — for at least several months.

The closure comes at a sensitive time for a city accustomed to gridlock. Hordes of spring break vacationers are poised to drive though the regional hub, and the Atlanta Braves will play this season at their new stadium along the I-285 bypass, which already has seen a surge in traffic since I-85 was forced to close.

“I think it’s as serious a transportation crisis as we could have,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said Thursday evening.

Latest developments

• It will take “at least several months” to rebuild the collapsed and otherwise damaged portions of I-85, Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry told reporters Friday afternoon.

• Three sections of northbound I-85 — including the part that collapsed — and three sections of southbound I-85 will have to be replaced, McMurry said. That’s 350 feet of highway — nearly a football field — in each direction, he said. Demolition of these sections started Friday and will last into Monday, McMurry said.

• The fire started in a fenced-in area under the expressway where the state stores construction materials, McMurry said. Those materials include what he first said were PVC pipes, then later described as HDPE — high-density polyethylene — pipes.

• Measuring the traffic impact with that section of I-85 closed, there has been a 50% increase on I-285 that rings the city and a 25% increase in traffic on major streets near the closed area, he said.

‘Fell with a big kaboom’

The fire started Thursday evening under I-85 in northeast Atlanta, north of the highway’s split with I-75.

At first, I-85 motorists drove through the smoke, and firefighters fought the flames below. It eventually grew into a massive fireball.

“There was a 40-feet or higher wall of fire. Power lines were falling and arcing heavily and falling in the streets,” Stafford, the spokesman for Atlanta Fire Rescue, told CNN.

The elevated span of highway collapsed about 7 p.m. Thursday as crews battling the fire got out of danger’s way, fire officials said.

As concrete began falling from under the bridge, firefighters were asked to step back, Stafford said. “Not even two minutes later, the highway fell with a big ‘kaboom.’ (It) knocked our guys back.”

While the highway is normally jammed with cars around that time, there were no fatalities, Reed said, as traffic flow had been halted.

More than 220,000 cars per day are estimated to drive through that stretch of the interstate. Officials scrambled to come up with alternate routes and encouraged riders to use public transit.

Surreal scenes

Social media users posted surreal images showing motorists — before the collapse — choosing to drive into the black smoke that billowed onto the highway as the fire burned beneath them.

CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin was driving north on I-85 during the evening rush hour when he saw smoke rising from underneath the elevated highway.

Many cars on the left side of the five-lane section barreled through the thick black smoke. They disappeared into the darkness as they drove, he said.

McLaughlin slowly followed the taillights of an SUV through the smoke.

Soon, interstate traffic was stopped and turned around, creating long jams.

What caused the fire?

McMurry, the state transportation boss, said it wasn’t immediately clear what started the fire at the state’s construction-equipment storage area near the bridge.

McMurry initially said the materials stored under the bridge were PVC pipes but later said they were HDPE — high-density polyethylene — pipes. He said the conduits are used in the “traffic management, cabling, fiber-optic and wire network.”

The material had been stored there “for some time, probably since 2006 or (2007),” McMurry said.

“We’re as eager to learn the cause of this fire as anyone,” he said.

HDPE pipes are widely used in the transportation industry to build “smart” highways that provide information to drivers, control traffic signal lights and tollways.

The pipes are also used in the distribution of natural gas and by telecommunication companies such as AT&T and Google Fiber.

Having construction materials stored under a highway is something out of the ordinary. They are usually stored in distribution yards, experts said.

Tony Radoszewski, president of the Plastics Pipe Institute, a trade group based in Irving, Texas, told CNN the flammability of HDPE is relatively low. If HDPE materials burn, they would have to be exposed to a high temperature flame for a considerable amount of time, Radoszewski explained.

“Somebody had to start a fire. It doesn’t combust by itself, it needs fuel,” Radoszewski told CNN.

“Someone had to do it,” Radoszewski said. “It’s not like someone would have dropped a match and it started.”

The Environmental Protection Agency took samples of the air and of the water in a nearby creek; results will be available in about two weeks, EPA spokesman Larry Lincoln said.

‘It’s going to take some time’

Authorities worked through the night to access the bridge and ensure the risks from the collapse were contained. Smoke still rose from the site Friday morning.

Most structural materials lose strength when subjected to high temperature, meaning the concrete could have been compromised by the heat, said Georgia Tech professor Reginald DesRoches.

He said it was too early to tell how long it would be for that part of I-85 to reopen but estimated it could be weeks or months.

“It’s going to take some time to get it repaired and to get it back in service,” the governor said, without offering a time frame for reopening.

Not business as usual

MARTA, Atlanta’s rail and bus system, will offer extended service through the weekend taking some of the burden off residents.

Atlanta was the fourth most-congested urban area in the United States in 2016 — and the eighth most congested in the world — INRIX, a transportation analytics company, said.

The INRIX 2016 Global Traffic Scorecard said Atlanta trailed Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco nationally, with those three cities ranked the first, third and fourth most-congested cities in the world, respectively. Moscow ranked second on that list.

Atlanta has the 12th worst congestion among U.S. cities and is 104th internationally, according to the annual traffic index released by GPS maker TomTom.

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Bombing at mosque in Pakistan kills 22

A bombing at a Shiite mosque in Pakistan’s tribal region on Friday killed at least 22 people and injured dozens more, officials told CNN.

The explosion rocked Parachinar. The city is in the Kurram Agency — a district in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in northwestern Pakistan.

Jamat Ul Ahrar, a Pakistan Taliban splinter group, claimed responsibility for the attack, in a statement sent via text to media.

At least 57 people were injured, a local health official said.

Outside a gate used by women

The incident took place at 11:30 a.m. The mosque is in the city’s central bazaar, outside a gate used exclusively by women, according to Shahid Ali Khan, a Kurram political official.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office issued a statement saying the attack underscores the government’s “unflinching resolve to eliminate the menace of terrorism from the country at all costs”

“The network of terrorists has already been broken and it is our national duty to continue this war until the complete annihilation of the scourge of terrorism from our soil,” the statement said.

An attack claimed by the same group occurred in another part of the tribal region in September.

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South Africa’s currency plummets

High-profile politics in South Africa has slammed the country’s currency.

The rand plunged nearly 4 percent against the dollar after President Jacob Zuma ousted his finance minister, Pravin Gordhan.

Zuma announced in a statement late Thursday that he was replacing Gordhan and a slew of other top ministers.

Investors were already fretting about Gordhan’s job security after Zuma on Monday ordered him to cancel a series of meetings with foreign investors and return home. That move also hit the rand, which is now down about 8 percent since the start of the week.

Gordhan has built a reputation as a steady hand who expertly guided South Africa’s economy and promoted its business interests. He first served as finance minister between 2009 and 2014, and returned to the job in December 2015, much to the relief of international investors.

Zuma brought him back in after sacking two other finance ministers in December 2015, a period of turmoil that hammered South Africa’s markets and currency.

— Eleni Giokos and David McKenzie contributed to this report.

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UM, FIU students arrested in prostitution sting

Students from the University of Miami and Florida International University were arrested during a prostitution sting in Coral Gables.

Two UM students, Acacia Friedman, 23, and Maury Noun, 21, along with FIU student Samara Charlotin, 19, were charged with prostitution after an undercover police operation Wednesday night.

Friedman and Charlotin reportedly met with an undercover detective at the Colonnade Hotel after agreeing to have sex for $5,000.

While inside the hotel, the detective handed Friedman the money and asked to verify “what he was getting” for the money.

Friedman first replied that it was a “hang out,” but later confirmed that sex with a condom would be involved.

Both Friedman and Charlotin were charged with engaging in prostitution, while Charlotin faces additional charges of possession of 1 gram of cannabis and one Oxycodone pill.

Noun was charged with aiding or abetting prostitution and directing others to prostitution.

In bond court on Thursday, Judge Mindy Glazer ordered Charlotin to stay away from the other two students.

“You’re a smart girl. If you want to see age 20, you need to find a new line of employment,” Glazer said. “A very risky thing you’re doing, alright? With someone with a lot of potential such as yourself, you need to stay away from them.”

The University of Miami declined to provide information or comment on the ongoing investigation. 

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Nail technician attacked, bitten by customer in Pompano Beach

A beauty technician said she was beaten up Monday at a salon in Pompano Beach.

“As she heads out, she says, ‘I’m not going to pay.  I changed my mind.  I’m not going to pay,'”  said the victim, who did not want to be named.  “So I stopped her.  ‘No, you have to pay.  You can’t just walk out like that.'”

That’s when the woman, trying to run out on her bill, decided to go on the attack using her shoes and her hands to beat the employee at Star Nails on Atlantic Boulevard.

She even bit the victim at one point.

“I’ve been sore, I’ve been home ice packing for the last two days,” the victim said.

Portions of the attack were caught on a surveillance camera.

“I’ve been here almost 10 years and nothing happened, just this,” the victim said, adding she hopes her attacker is caught. “Soon, I’m going to have to have people pay first.”

Anyone with information about this attack is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 954-493-TIPS.

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Husband sentenced to prison for fatal DUI crash while having sex with wife

A South Florida man who pleaded guilty to a DUI accident that killed his wife while the two were having sex was sentenced to five years in prison.

Matthew Notebaert of Loxahatchee had earlier plead guilty to vehicular manslaughter and drunk driving in the 2014 crash that killed his wife, Amanda.

The Palm Beach Post reports Notebaert was drunk and high on marijuana when he drove his SUV into a canal embankment near the couple’s home.

Amanda Notebaert, who died at the scene, was riding on her husband’s lap and was naked from the waist down at the time of the accident.

In his sentencing hearing Wednesday, Notebaert said the couple began drinking while at a concert to mark his wife’s first night out after giving birth to their second child.

Notebaert said all he remembers of the accident is waking up next to his dead wife’s body.

Three hours after the accident, Notebaert was found to have a blood alcohol level of .149, twice the legal amount to drive.

Notebaert’s attorney had asked for her client to receive probation, but Circuit Judge Laura Johnson took the 33-year-old’s previous felony charges of cocaine possession, burglary and grand theft into account when announcing her sentence.

“This isn’t your first chance. You’ve been to jail before. You’ve been on probation,” Johnson said, according to the Post, adding: “You failed your wife. You failed your children and you failed all your family that is here today.”

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