Atlanta Bridge Collapses During Highway Fire — in Rush Hour

A highway bridge collapsed on Thursday night, following a massive fire beneath the busy Interstate 85 in Atlanta, Georgia. The collapse backed up rush hour traffic for many miles, and created what the mayor called a long-term "transportation crisis," NBC News reported.

"I think it's as serious a transportation crisis as we could have," Mayor Kasim Reed said at a news conference. I-85 is one of the busiest highways in the eastern United States, a major artery for cars and commercial trucks from southern Alabama through Virginia.

A huge fire was reported at 6:21 p.m. Eastern underneath the bridge on the northbound side, near where I-85 merges with another major artery, State Highway 400, forcing authorities to close the highway and turn drivers around during rush hour.

At 7 p.m., it got worse. The bridge then partially collapsed in a flaming heap, spewing thick, black smoke into the air. Authorities managed to turn back traffic before the bridge collapsed, and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal said no injuries were reported. Deal declared a state of emergency for Atlanta and Fulton County late Thursday night.

The fire was declared under control about 8 p.m., but the collapse was the key issue. All lanes of I-85 in the area are expected to be blocked indefinitely, according to the state's Department of Transportation.

Mayor Reed reported that FBI agents had reported no suspected link to terrorism.

Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran reported that other parts of I-85 had been "compromised," including the important interchange over Piedmont Road, which leads to the state capitol. Cochran praised state troopers, saying that they saved lives by managing to stop all the traffic in the 40 minutes before the bridge collapsed.

"We had heavy fire. We had heavy smoke. We couldn't see through that smoke just like everybody else," the fire chief added.

While the cause of the fire was still undetermined Thursday night, Governor Deal said that authorities were focusing on the possibility that polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe commonly used in construction may have ignited. Large amounts of PVC were reportedly stored under the bridge.