An elevated section of a major north-south highway in the south-east of the US has collapsed in a massive fire.
Atlanta’s notoriously tangled commutes were thrown into disarray when a bridge on Interstate 85 collapsed after a fire burned for more than an hour under the northbound lanes, shutting down the busy highway through the heart of the city during rush hour on Thursday afternoon.
Traffic was bumper to bumper in the area as people scrambled to find alternative routes.
Officials said no one had been hurt despite towering flames and plumes of smoke captured in dramatic video footage.
“This is about as serious a transportation crisis as we can imagine,” said Atlanta’s mayor, Kasim Reed.
Commuters in some of Atlanta’s densely populated northern suburbs face the prospect of needing to find alternative routes or take public transport for weeks or even months.
Georgia’s top transport official said there was no way to tell when the highway, which carries 250,000 cars a day, could be safely reopened to traffic in either direction after the collapse in the northbound lanes leading out of the city.
“We will have to continue to evaluate the situation and adjust as we do,” said the state transport department’s commissioner, Russell McMurry.
“This incident, make no bones about it, will have a tremendous impact on travel.”
McMurry said bridge inspectors had determined that the southbound lanes of I-85 had also been damaged by the fire and would need to remain closed for the near future.
He said the fire had started in an area used to store construction materials, equipment and supplies, and authorities were working to determine how the blaze began.
Bobby Barnhart, who works for a financial technology company near the road, said he and his colleagues had watched the bridge collapse from about 60 yards away as the fire raged.
He said he heard several explosions beneath the bridge, followed by a slow rumbling.
“It was a big sound.
You could feel the vibrations,” Barnhart said.
With the interstate closed, Barnhart said his Friday morning commute had taken him about 30 minutes rather than the normal 10 to 15.
The interstate is a major artery for traffic heading north and south through Atlanta.
The bridge collapse effectively “puts a cork in the bottle,” according to Georgia’s state patrol commissioner, Mark McDonough.
Georgia’s governor, Nathan Deal, declared a state of emergency, saying the state was mobilising resources to minimise traffic disruption while emergency work continued.
The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority increased the number of rail services on Friday.
Deal said that PVC plastic materials in a vehicle may have caught fire.
Atlanta fire department spokesman Sgt Cortez Stafford said no cars were on the overpass when it fell.
“Our guys got here quickly and shut down the interstate and said: ‘No one else is driving over this bridge,’” he said.