Hell Burns Hotter Than The I-85 Fire

A reporter asked Georgia Department of Transportation commissioner Russell McMurry if the homeless guy charged with arson, Basil Eleby, is a scapegoat.

“I won’t speculate on what people call the person who caused this fire,” McMurry said.

Note the phrasing. Eleby caused the fire. Not GDOT.

GDOT did nothing wrong. That’s the line.

When the state or local government screws up, they’re usually invulnerable to criminal prosecution or serious civil prosecution. One must prove a state employee violated one’s constitutional rights. It’s the doctrine of sovereign immunity – a court is an instrument of the state, and the state can’t punish itself.

The “I” in I-85 stands for “Interstate.” That’s a problem right now for the Georgia Department of Transportation. And I think that’s why McMurry is so eager to push all of the responsibility for the collapse of the I-85 overpass on a homeless man with apparent substance abuse problems.

Most of Georgia’s highway budget comes from federal funds. Georgia gets that money on certain conditions. One of those conditions presumably involves not letting those roads be vulnerable to immolation by anyone with a lighter. The feds sure as hell can hold state government to account when one of its roads gets barbequed into gravel, particularly if they think someone was negligent or criminal.

Consider the federal prosecution of George H. Bell last year. Bell worked as an assistant area maintenance foreman for GDOT. He was convicted for taking bribes to let contractors dump dirty fill on GDOT lots in DeKalb.

I pay attention to corruption issues in DeKalb. That one stuck with me, because corrupt GDOT officials figured DeKalb would be suitable to dump waste. The same division office covering DeKalb covers the I-85 underpass at Piedmont, and this case suggests the possibility of systematic oversight problems. 

McMurry said that no other combustibles were stored under the bridge. But can GDOT really be sure, given that relatively recent prosecution, that the only stuff under that bridge was fiberoptic insulation? Pictures from Google Street View seem to show wood pallets and other material.

Of course, McMurry also described the tubing as “noncombustible.” I suppose we all imagined the fifty-foot high flames.

The press this morning had far more questions about what was stored under the bridge, and how it was stored, than anything GDOT really wanted to talk about.

The material, HDPE coils, had been stored there for at least six years. GDOT kept the coils after TBC Systems Integration, a construction contractor from Smyrna, went bankrupt. It was acquired in 2007, stored outside at Sidney Marcus Boulevard and Buford Highway in 2009, then moved under I-85 in 2011.

He said they were keeping it in case they needed it later. For a decade. He didn’t say why they didn’t bother selling it as surplus, like one might expect.

“I don’t know if we have quantified” how much HDPE was stored, McMurry said. That’s telling, because McMurry’s claim that the material was stored in line with fire code requires him to know how much HDPE was actually stored there. The weight and volume is important. Beyond a certain amount, stacking heights, storage aisles and – critically – security requirements kick in under the NFPA standards.

McMurry has at least twice now laid off responsibility for the blaze on the alleged actions of Basil Eleby, who was arrested almost immediately after I-85 collapsed and charged with arson.

Here’s the official line.

“This is an active investigation, and we’ve been fully cooperative with fire investigation by local officials,” McMurry said today at a press conference. “In an effort to save taxpayer dollars, GDOT chose to store the material in hopes that it could be used for another project. The material was stored on state property behind a fence, with a locked gate, with a sign placed that it was state property and no trespassing. The area was breached by an individual or individuals who allegedly trespassed on state property with the devastating outcome we are now dealing with. We are told by fire officials and media reports that the blaze was deliberately set and subsequently spread to the rolls of HDPE conduit.”

That “locked gate” was next to a Jersey barrier that about anyone could just step over, and did.

The witnesses – two other homeless people who were allowed to escape with criminal trespassing orders after telling investigators something useful – told WSB’s Mark Winne that “Basil Eleby put what (witness Sophia Brauer) believed to be crack in a cart shortly before the fire that would cause the bridge collapse.

“She said Thomas saw Eleby pile a sofa on top of a plastic shopping cart and then reach underneath. Brauer said sometime later she saw the sofa on fire. ‘It was all burning. It was hot as hell. I’m talking about the Target cart was melting,’ Brauer told Winne.”

The storage site was so secure that someone felt safe enough to put a freaking couch back there to take a nap. That someone could get a couch back there, at all, demonstrates the lack of practical security.

Beyond having someone convenient to blame for a “catastrophe of national significance,” as he put it, McMurry doesn’t actually appear to care one whit for the homeless people traipsing through his property. He flatly dodged questions about having any responsibility to affirmatively manage homelessness, issuing broad platitudes and no commitments.

“I hope that will be a discussion,” he said. “The homeless population that exists is something that the community should always be interested in. … Our charge is to provide transportation infrastructure. That’s a social issue that deserves a bigger conversation.”

Tell me, McMurry. How’s that attitude working out for you right now?

One thing is clear to me, after listening to all of this: the state’s assertions about its relative innocence cannot be relied upon.

We have it on the word of state authority – the state police investigators initial arrest report – that Basil Eleby did what they claim. We have absolutely no independent evidence to support that claim.

We do have ample independent evidence – the Google Maps photos of the underpass, and the statements of government officials – that material was stored under the bridge, and that this material combusted, bringing down the interstate. We also have reference to fire codes … and common sense … indicating that this storage was at best stupid and at worst an act of official negligence.

Now, Georgia isn’t likely to charge itself or its employees acting in their official capacity with a crime. But the FBI and the NTSB might.

State investigators therefore have some motivation to shift as much legal responsibility away from the state as possible. That is going to influence how they approach Eleby’s case.

I work on homelessness downtown. I am told by people who know him that he is indigent, still drug addicted, mentally ill and possibly developmentally disabled. How is Eleby represented? Did he have counsel available during an interrogation? I can imagine a hand-picked state fire investigator under immense institutional pressure manipulating the interrogation to elicit all sorts of confessions from Eleby.

Does the state have their thumb on the scale? Maybe. Maybe not. Given the careers at stake, the state money on the line and the political consequences, all presumptions of investigation in good faith should be questioned.

This isn’t a liberal view. It’s actually a fundamentally conservative one: skepticism of state authority.

And, given my feelings about the Trump Administration, this further opinion should seem even less liberal: I think the prosecution of Basil Eleby should be immediately moved to federal court, with federal prosecutors, in the name of preserving evidence if federal officials deem it necessary to try state officials in a negligence case before they can all retire on full pension.

McMurry called those coils of plastic tube noncombustible. We saw the damned fire, brother. HDPE burns at 341 degrees, low enough for a wood fire to light it up. Hell is hotter still. My trust goes up in flames at much lower temperatures.


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