Sure. Blame The Crackhead.

Three homeless people, smoking crack under I-85, are apparently responsible for destroying the interstate and causing untold millions of dollars in infrastructure damage and untold millions more in economic damage. That’s what we are asked to think.

Yeah. Right.

It’s not that I don’t believe that someone stupidly set fire to the combustible conduit stored under the bridge. The very quick arrest and arson charges for Basil Eleby may or may not be sustained. There will be hearings, and perhaps a trial, assuming Eleby doesn’t simply cut a deal like 90 percent of indigent criminal defendants do.

I don’t really care.

Let me state the obvious: whoever is responsible for storing material under the interstate that could melt a bridge had better still be in prison when Eleby gets out. 

The Department of Transportation bears the true burden for this disaster. And that may be why state investigators quickly made an arrest of someone who doesn’t work in a business suit.

The second-day news stories weren’t looking at the chain of command, working their way down from GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry, trying to figure out who had the legal authority to allow high-density plastic conduit to be stored under the highway.

Instead, it’s the easy story — pictures of the black guy in an orange jumpsuit that they’ve done a thousand times before. And, because it’s easy to report, everyone reported it, burying the real questions under a wave of sensational news about an alleged crackhead burning down I-85.

This is an image from Google Street View, before the fire.

Reference page 13 of GDOT’s Design Policy Manual notes that the National Fire Protection Association code covers how GDOT is supposed to install fiber. Georgia uses an amended version of that code as the basis for its state minimum standard fire code.

Now, a robust argument can be had about how to classify stacks and stacks of plastic conduit for fire code purposes. If you call it a synthetic fiber, chapter 50 of the International Fire Code that the state uses says that no more than 1000 pounds of it should be stored together without additional protections. If we’re calling it a Class III combustible solid, the rules are different. In either case, the code requires adequate security for the storage of combustible materials, and that those materials be kept away from flammable stuff.

Take a look at the stacks there, of a product made from petroleum, up against the pylons of the bridge, and tell me a fire marshal would sign off on that.

I think someone violated policy. Someone has apparently been violating policy for about a decade — McMurry said it had been under there since as early as 2006.

Here’s GDOT’s organizational chart. Does field services in district 7 bear responsibility for storing this construction material? Was this an operations decision? A construction management decision?

GDOT employs about 4,000 people. None of the executives in that org chart have the words “safety” or “security” in their job title. Whoever’s job it is to figure out whether there are systematic risks to the transportation infrastructure in this town isn’t important enough to name.

And yet, at the exact moment this fire was burning, our beloved legislature voted to approve a new set of “domestic terrorism” statutes, primarily to empower state and local police to investigate private citizens suspected of plotting malicious acts threatening “critical infrastructure.”

No, that law would not apply to GDOT here. I checked.

The buck is going to be passed. Someone is inevitably going to argue that this kind of catastrophe could not have been predicted, that HDPE conduit isn’t normally all that flammable and that no one in charge of anything important at GDOT should be held responsible for a decision made 10 years ago to store the stuff under a bridge. It will be described as an organizational failure, because the department isn’t set up with an internal inspection system to catch these kinds of problems, OSHA be damned. They will say that they took security precautions — never mind the NFPA code — by storing it behind a locked gate.

They’ll blame the crackhead.

The moment we hear anything like that will be the moment we should ask for Russell McMurry’s resignation.

Basil Eleby should not be the only person facing serious criminal charges today. They’re slapping the wrong face on this mess.

(Edits and corrections: I’d like to thank the commenters on this story for adding some context and correcting errors. The area of the span that collapsed was only about 100 feet long, though 350 feet of span will require replacement.

There is a valid question about whether the material stored under the bridge would have been considered flammable by NFPA standards. The correct term may be “combustible solids” which I don’t think anyone is likely to argue with after this result. The storage of a combustible solid is generally in line with that of a combustible liquid — which is covered by similar regulation, which does not appear to be adhered to here. Too much material, too little security.)


31 thoughts on “Sure. Blame The Crackhead.”

  1. If the “crackhead”, your words, hadn’t started the fire, those improperly stored materials would not have burned. So, yeah, the “crackhead” is to blame for initiating this disaster!!! Those materials have been there for 11 years and nary a peep, until, wait for it…..being deliberately set ablaze by an arsonist.

    1. In business, when there’s an incident, we do something called a “Root Causes Analysis.” Clearly one of the root causes was Mr. Eleby allegedly lighting a chair on fire under the bridge.
      The other is the clear failure of GDOT to adhere to NFPA and FHWA standards in maintaining combustible materials away from infrastructure.
      It’s not enough to address only one root cause, otherwise the incident will recur.
      This conduit degrades with UV exposure anyway, and is meant for direct burial use only. There’s no excuse for storing this outdoors for 5 years.
      So, Noway, this incident might have been avoided on Thursday if Mr. Eleby weren’t smoking crack under the bridge. But it wouldn’t have eliminated the hazardous condition that is the more responsible cause.

  2. Did the conduit even belong to GDOT? If so, why?

    I understand their need to stockpile gravel, sand, salt, etc. But fiber optic conduit?

    I worked for a company that bid on supplying product to GDOT but it was always on a specific project basis. I can’t figure why they would need or even want to buy fiber optic conduit in bulk. Especially in a size that has enough capacity to carry millions of fibers.

    1. I dont know if it was ever proposed here, but there has been a push across the country for “Dig Once” laws that stipulate that whenever you dig up a road or utilities, or build new roads you are required to also lay fiber optic line simultaneously to keep the street from being dug up so many times while laying the base infrastructure for telecom expansion. They might have been planning ahead at some point and just forgot about it (still no excuse)

  3. Looking at the Street View map with a bit of zoom it is obvious that the fence is wide open. This guy that did this I have first hand knowledge of. He was working (briefly) at a body shop in the area. The guy is crazy (mentally ill), and has been for a long time. Once again, a mentally ill person that has fallen through the cracks has caused yet another disaster. As for GDOT, let me put it this way…if you spread honey all over yourself and stand on an ant mound is it the ants fault you are crawling with ants…not so much.

    1. I think you are confusing flashpoint with flammability. By your definition they wouldn’t consider most cooking oils as flammable. The wooden spools the pipe was stored on wouldn’t even be considered flammable, or even coal for that matter. The flashpoint for HDPE in your link is 341°C. Bituminous coal’s flashpoint is 454°C. I think we can all agree that storing coal beneath a viaduct would be a bad idea and in violation of the GDOT code George cited “that outdoor storage of flammable solids shall not be located within 20 feet of a road.” HDPE definitely qualifies as a flammable solid i.e. when you put a flame to it you obviously get a fire hot enough to take at least 4 inches of concrete off of the vertical surface of a column. While hindsight is 20/20, 500 crackheads around 500 fire barrels could not have caused such a conflagration without the tons of fuel left under this viaduct in clear violation of GDOT’s own guidelines.

    2. George,

      Thank you for the update and backing of the implication of criminal wrongdoing by GDOT.

      The colloquial definition of flammable or combustible is something that will burn. From a regulatory perspective, “flammable” and “combustible solid” mean very specific things. The simplest statement on the matter is that “Solid resins support combustion but do not meet combustible definition. Under fire conditions, product will readily burn and emit a heavy, irritating black smoke. A high concentration of airborne powders or dust may form an explosive mixture with air.”

      Will HDPE resin burn? Absolutely at about 341ºC. Does it require special handling? No.

      From a policy standpoint, it’s important to ask if this was preventable. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there was misconduct or negligence.

      More exciting links on HDPE:

      1. Hi Jim,

        (FYI, this is my wheelhouse as a plastics engineer.)
        I appreciate that you’re trying to inform yourself on HDPE and other plastics. HDPE is the same plastic as in your milk carton, and if you’ve ever tried to burn one of those, I promise you that it will burn. It’s basically candle-wax with a higher melting point. So when you’ve got a nice “wick” in the form of a giant wooden spool, then yes, it’ll burn.

        Also, as we’re citing flashpoint/autoignition temperature here, wood’s flashpoint is 300C. I’m not sure that anyone would argue that wood is not combustible. If GDOT had made a giant teepee-lay out of the same amount of wood, it’s pretty obvious to me that they’re creating a hazardous situation. So however the fire started, and frankly, it’s important but irrelevant, the fact that excess fuel was stored in a location that is critical to infrastructure is negligent behavior.

        Furthermore, because these plastics were in the form of extruded tube, instead of solid pellets (as they would be in the Dow SDS), the surface-to-volume ratio changes, which lets a lot more oxygen at the flames. Thin sticks burn more easily than thick ones; tubes burn much better than rods.

        1. David,

          At issue isn’t will HDPE burn. (It will, as we’ve both written.) The issue is what special handling of HDPE is required by OSHA, DOT, and NFPA code.

          It’s fair to say that GDOT erred in storing HDPE conduits under a bridge. It’s even fair to make a legal argument that they acted negligently in doing so. It’s not fair to say that OSHA, DOT, and NFPA prohibit storing HDPE conduits under a bridge. I’ve provided several Safety Data Sheets to back this up.

          1. NFPA 13 seems to govern storage scenarios from the point of view of when sprinkler systems are required, indoors and otherwise, but sorting through all that to find out whether this case was safe and approved seems like a waste to time, given our lack of a bridge. There’s tons of regulation around how to safely store regular merchandise that happens to be inside HDPE containers or stored on HDPE pallets, so I’m pretty sure the eventual ruling on the decision to store dozens of giant rolls of the stuff under I-85 won’t be favorable.
            That’s not even the point here.
            The point is that people in our government stuffed a giant fire hazard under a bridge, left it completely unsecured (behind an unlocked gate located about 40 feet away from what is clearly a footpath around the end of the fence) in an area with an established homeless population, never to be used, and the only person to ever take a moment to wonder if that might burn down the highway was Mr. Eleby, the “crackhead.”
            The point of the article is we shouldn’t let Mr. Eleby’s justified punishment for arson be the end of the story. The GDOT says this is standard practice. Let’s hope that is not the case going forward. This was an incredibly costly mistake that could have been easily avoided, and Atlanta deserves leaders that aren’t so easily out maneuvered by a guy with a Bic lighter.
            (Those burn at 3500 degrees Fahrenheit, by the way)

  4. What collapsed was not 350 feet wide. It was only one third of that. The spans on either side will also have to be replaced, and the total is 350 feet.

    “Let me state the obvious: whoever is responsible for storing material under the interstate that could melt a bridge had better still be in prison when Eleby gets out. ” What a load of crap statement. Somebody who makes a poor decision does not belong in jail unless that decision is also criminal. If the crackhead intentionally set the fire, whether he guessed the consequences or not, then he belongs in jail. It is unlikely that anybody at GDOT committed a crime in this particular instance.

  5. A word about the term “crackhead.” It’s pejorative. And its use is deliberate here.

    His social position is not incidental to this issue. He is the most powerless person one might conceive of, and about as socially rejected as one could conceive of. The disparity of power between him and the state investigating him is a vital point to convey, strongly, because the state has a hell of a lot at stake here and if he were capable of mounting a personal defense it would add to the state’s risk. I’ll have more to say about this later.

    I’m not going to start a bail fund for him. I’m not on the “free mah homie Basil” train. But the … convenience … of his arrest should raise questions, given what’s on the line.

    That said, I do not encourage the use of this term casually. As my friend Daniel said, “I’d encourage others to respectfully address people suffering from addiction, instead of dismissing them as ‘crackheads’; I think that’s a good step toward treating people with dignity.”

  6. That area has been used for the storage of materials for lot longer than 11 years. I have been taking the Armour Drive exit off 0f I-85 for well over 11 years and don’t remember it as anything other than construction materials storage.

  7. Google Street View’s archives are available in the browser (in the box to the upper left of the screen when viewed on a computer,) and the pictures taken of this pile of material back in April 2012 look identical to the ones right before the fire. Previous reports indicate this pile has been there since 2004, but the archive view from under the bridge shows this space was empty in July 2011.
    This doesn’t look like materials that have ever been used as inventory for projects, but rather long-term storage of material possibly left over from some other project, poorly secured, constituting a major fire hazard. Given the damage caused by its ignition, this was a time-bomb left there by GDOT, not something that should be blamed on a homeless person.
    Additionally, according to this site: one of the disadvantages to HDPE is that it is flammable.

  8. I think the important thing here is to find a single person responsible — Eleby or otherwise — and act as if there was only one cause of this happening and not a series of events and decisions.

    We should certainly NOT consider issues like homelessness (in the richest nation on earth), mental illness and treatment, poor storage of materials, questionable infrastructure, or anything along those lines. Nope. Single cause, period.

  9. To answer any of these issue, we need to wait on the full SFM investigation report (which will take months, if not a year to release). Since this is a full arson investigation, the state is going to do computer simulations and run ignition patterns. Whoever covers the insurance and bond rating agencies for the designer (if it’s a private contractor for GDOT) and the general contractor is going to run their own investigation to make sure the bridge did not have a fatal design flow or was constructed incorrectly. The material is also most likely covered under insurance for lost and theft – who holds that policy? Who was the AHJ for either fire or building inspection of that area? Have any citations been issued, do they have a legal variance, etc. Did the police arrest others for trespassing into the area in the last 5 years? Is this a chronic problem due to not securing the area properly? Were other highly flammable liquid hazards in small quantities (like road paint or bonding agents) stored in the area?

    The factors of cause/effect/fault are endless.

  10. I presume that the writer of this piece is or was at one time a lawyer and or elected official. If so, the writer of this piece ought to be able to identify whatever city, state or federal laws or ordinances that were broken by storing materials that are not classified as hazardous, toxic or dangerous in any way – please no obfuscating by stating that it was flammable … everything except water I suppose is flammable IF IT IS PURPOSEFULLY LIT ON FIRE BY SOMEONE – on government property (the bridge).

    Yes, you are citing the fire code and pointing out that it is material made of petroleum. That is funny. It could have been textile goods, paper, wood you name it … if someone lights it then it is going to burn, period. What you are alluding to using your rhetorical skills are laws designed to prevent spontaneous combustion and the like. Oily rags on a hot day? Boom! Flour mills? Boom! Not fiber. That stuff only burns if someone lights it. Which is what happened in this case.

    Do you know what proves this? Your own statement that this stuff had been stored under this bridge without incident since 2006. There have been tons of very hot days since then, days when the temperature exceeded 100 degrees, during the very long drought that we had for years not long ago when the air was very dry. Did it catch fire then? Nope. It only caught fire when a criminal with a long arrest history set it on fire! So this material was not dangerous. Storing this material in this place was not dangerous. The only dangerous thing about this entire situation was the career criminal with the malice and the match.

    Maybe you can say that more should have been done to prevent access to those materials by criminals; that the city or county or state should have surrounded those materials with the equivalent of what defends and protects a suburban gated community (including but not limited to no MARTA access). Fine. All that proves is that we do in fact need more protection from the very sort of person that you are trying to shift blame for this incident to.

    We should remember this post in case some white supremacist decides to set fire to a building … we should pin the blame on folks who constructed the building for not making it entirely of 100% cinder blocks to be consistent, right?

  11. I am deeply disturbed that there has been no reporting of who permitted the storage of the PVC conduit lines under the I-85. Since the Interstate system is essentially federal property, I can’t imagine that just anybody was allowed to store that PVC under it. Someone important or some agency that doesn’t want anybody asking questions (i.e., GDOT) is culpable. I’m rarely a conspiracy theorist, but I smell something and it isn’t just burning plastic.

    This should be on the front page of AJC and “Breaking News” on every local news channel. I’ve emailed them all to challenge them to do just this. Quickly arresting three ‘ne’er do well’ crackheads who started the fire and parading them around in front of the media in their orange jumpsuits may be enough to satiate some, but I am not. Most thinking (and non-racist) individuals should see this as theater, not justice.

    Some agency has the purview over the storage of this combustible material under the interstate. My bet is GDOT, given their protestations from the very early stages that PVC is not combustible. I believe they “doth protest too much,” but investigative journalism is needed to ferret out the truth here.

  12. Maybe an alien terrorist crashed a stealth plane into I-85 and the jet fuel caused it to collapse.

    This is amazing. A total collapse of our security. I understand this interstate over pass I-85 and Piedmont has been used as storage place for quite awhile. The media is complicit in the white wash. Their lack of coverage of why the material was there and what was it purpose has not been covered. Instead the focus has been the superficial cause. How many other critical infrastructure assets are not being properly secured and managed.

    There should be some GDOT members held accountable for storing the materials under the I-85 highway. Instead, the blame is being focused on the homeless. The interstate is a major transportation infrastructure route. This should have never been used as a warehouse storage facility. I believe some individuals at GDOT may have been getting kickbacks for paying for warehouse storage while they were using an under pass to store the materials. The FBI should investigate this incident.

    Don’t get me wrong I do believe those that set the fire should be held accountable but they are certainly not the only culprits in this major fiasco that will cost millions and millions and millions.

    This incident financial costs will rival any theft that the FBI maybe currently investigating

    Never let a bad situation,happen without making something good come of it. This event may have some benefit if we can get a comprehensive regional transportation rail and bus system implemented and funded.

  13. Can we get real here? Something that was put under a bridge by a construction crew, whether private or government, in 2006 and that has not been touched since is not being stored. It is being dumped. Why was this not properly disposed of, resold, or reused? In addition to a fire hazard, it was a waste of taxpayer money. The waste of money is now compounded exponentially. Follow that money trail. Was this a private company that was paid by GDOT to properly dispose of it and they didn’t? Is this just government waste by bloated bureaucracy, or intentional malice? Blaming the “crackhead” is a bit too convenient. I’d like to find out the real reason this happened.

  14. [email protected] says:

    It reminds me of blaming Richard Jewel for the Olympics bombing so that they could have someone to hang the blame on – when in reality the murderer was a right-wing evangelistic abortion clinic bomber named Eric Rudolph.

  15. Yeah this article makes a lot of sense. Because if I buy a storage unit and have flammable items stored there and a few homeless people break into my storage unit to hang out and smoke crack and they burn the entire storage facility down and are arrested of course it’s 100% my fault. In a liberal’s mind a black person can do absolutely whatever they want, but it’s always a white person’s fault some where down the line.

    1. How is this a white people thing?!
      In your scenario, yes, if you leave the door wide open on your shed, you are responsible for the damage done to the surrounding units if someone wanders in there and lights your stuff on fire. The person that lit it on fire is also going to be charged with starting the fire, but you should have locked your shed.

  16. Im just confused as to where in the article George mentioned that Eleby was not at fault. Cause that seems to be a good majority of responses to this article. And its not even close to what George is saying.

    In case you need it made clear. Eleby & someone at GDOT are at fault…

Leave a Reply