It’s your daily afternoon commute. You’re coming home from work. You’ve got the radio on, the shades flipped down as the sun begins to make its descent. Traffic is backed up, but only a little more than usual. You’re about to reach your exit when you see cars sprawled in every possible angle and direction. Police are beginning to frantically divert traffic off the closest exit ramp, and it’s only then that you notice the thick black cloud of smoke rising from below the stretch of road in front of you.
This is exactly what happened for Nicole Ricketson, 22, a recent graduate of the University of Georgia and staff accountant Nichols, Cauley, & Associates, on her way home from work on Thursday, March 30. Ricketson lives just two miles from the I-85 bridge that collapsed early that evening.
“I saw the fire when I was turning off on Exit 86 because I live on Lennox Road, so thankfully I was home before it actually collapsed,” Ricketson said.
Basil Eleby, 39, was charged with starting the fire by igniting some piping and construction materials that the Georgia Department of Transportation had stored under the bridge for many years. The repairs are expected to last until June 15, but the GDOT is offering millions in reward money for the contractors to finish the job early.
No injuries resulted from the fire, thanks to quick action by first responders, who began diverting traffic from the bridge in the 45 minutes from the time the fire started to the time of the collapse.
“I was just really thankful no one was hurt, that was my first thought,” Ricketson said. “I was really glad the bridge fell the way it did, like it was supposed to so that it was just a section.”
Although Ricketson was able to get home in a timely manner that evening, others weren’t so lucky.
“I know people who were down the road 15 minutes behind me, and they were stuck on the road for many hours,” Ricketson said. “I saw pictures of people sitting on top of their cars in the middle of downtown where no one was moving.”
Melissa Richards, 20, a Georgia State University student who lives less than a mile from where the bridge collapsed, had much more fearful thoughts upon hearing the news.
“My initial thought was terrorism or some kind of bomb,” Richards said. “I was very scared for the majority of that evening, until I heard what really happened.”
While most Georgians watched the news coverage in shock hours after the collapse happened, Richards spent those hours worrying about her city. She and her roommates had several friends and family members calling to check on them to see if they were out on the roads or not.
Since the collapse, the flow of traffic has been directed off I-85 into the city where Richards lives. Her commute time to her student teaching position in Dunwoody has doubled.
“The traffic is exponentially worse than it has ever been since I have lived in this area. It’s bad at all times of the day now,” Richards said.
Not only does the collapse impact those living in the area, but UGA students who take I-85 to visit home now have to take alternate routes and plan for longer commute times.
“I immediately thought ‘it’s going to be a nightmare to go home at any point now’,” said Melissa Davies, 20, a political science and international affairs student from Smyrna, Ga.
Davies usually takes I-85 to I-285 to get home, but can also take Hwy 316, to I-85, to I-20 to I-285. In the first way, she sits in traffic that is backed up on I-85 until I-285. In the second, she would run right through where the collapse happened.
Like Richards, Davies’s commute home has nearly doubled since the collapse and increase in traffic. The weekend of the collapse, she had a trip planned to Nashville and had to take an alternate route that added an additional hour of trip time in order to bypass it.
“I will never drive home between 3:00 and 8:00 pm now,” Davies said.
With the construction also on I-20 due to a road buckle on Monday, Apr 17, as well as UGA’s upcoming summer break, Atlanta’s traffic problems are not going anywhere. More students will be on the roads and looking for alternate routes, or they will pay the price in time spent in these highly congested areas.