Arson Suspect May Have Used Crack Before Atlanta Overpass Fire

By Victoria Kim 04/04/17

Basil Eleby, the current sole suspect, has been arrested and charged with first-degree arson and criminal damage to property. 

Atlanta I-85 overpass fire
Atlanta I-85 overpass fire. Photo via YouTube

With Atlanta still reeling from the fire that destroyed 10 highway lanes in the heart of the city, officials are trying to piece together the cause of the blaze.

According to the latest report by CNN, Basil Eleby is currently the only arson suspect tied to last Thursday’s fire. According to an arrest affidavit, Eleby discussed smoking crack under the highway overpass with two others—all believed to be homeless. And the media has fixated on this incriminating detail.

According to Eleby, he instead went on to smoke by himself and left the area before the fire started. But Barry Thomas, one of Eleby’s two companions, reported watching Eleby ignite a chair and shopping cart under the highway.

Eleby has been arrested and charged with first-degree arson and criminal damage to property, and is being held on $200,000 bond. The affidavit did not mention how he and his friends came to be identified as suspects by authorities. 

The damaged highway will take at least several months to rebuild, according to transportation authorities. The destruction poses “as serious a transportation crisis as we could have,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

The fire began beneath Interstate 85 in northeast Atlanta on Thursday evening. By 7pm, “the highway fell with a big kaboom,” according to the fire department. 

Five lanes in each direction, both north- and southbound, collapsed as a result of the fire. No one was injured and there were no casualties.

According to CNN, the fire began in a fenced-in area under I-85, where the state has stored construction materials since as early as 2006, according to Russell McMurry, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation. 

But that doesn’t explain how the fire started in the first place, says a representative of the Plastics Pipe Institute, a trade group. The materials “needs fuel” and “doesn’t combust by itself,” said the rep—pointing to arson.

Eleby’s alleged drug use doesn't help—but some, like The Fix contributor Chloe Elizabeth, argue that this story is a huge wake-up call that should make us reconsider how society deals with the mentally ill.

"[Taxpayers] aren't angry enough to demand resources for the mentally ill and drug addicted. We'd rather sweep those problems under a bridge and hope they go away," writes Elizabeth. "Well this time it blew up in our faces."

Renee Hogan is another drug user who was arrested last August after being identified as the cause of the Willow fire in Northern California. Authorities say Hogan did not realize she had a flat tire while driving along the highway because she was high on painkillers. 

She continued to drive until her rear tire wore down to the metal rim, sending sparks flying and igniting the grass along the road. The fire spread, burning 450 acres of land.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr