Sympathy for the Man Who Set Fire to an Interstate Bridge

By Chloe Elizabeth 04/04/17

I told myself, while trying desperately to light a crack rock as gusts of wind whipped my face, that no one loved me and no one cared where I was or what would become of me under that bridge.

Basil Eleby's mugshot, the man who set fire to the interstate bridge.
Society is failing the less fortunate who need help, homes, and unconditional love

The news broke Saturday — April Fool's Day — that the man accused of starting the fire under the I-85 bridge in Atlanta did so after smoking crack. The bridge collapsed after about 45 minutes of burning PVC piping and other construction materials left by the Georgia Department of Transportation in 2006.

And I sympathize with 39-year-old Basil Eleby because that could have been me. I turn 39 this year and plan to celebrate in August nine years clean off drugs, but around the time those construction materials were ditched by the DOT, I was living under a bridge in nearby Sandy Springs, which had just become a city that summer. I was not only smoking crack cocaine on a daily basis but also injecting cocaine and panhandling on the exit ramps of I-285 for money to support my habit. I kept a clean syringe under a rock halfway between the highway and the overpass.

The new police department that rolled out around July helped move me on toward my goals. Laws force cops to move people from the streets, shifting attention to the crimes of homeless addicts instead of focusing on the formula long enough to see the solution.

And, really, as long as there have been crackheads under bridges you'd think officials would know better and be more beholden to policies about not storing flammable materials under a bridge. Regulations exist but now that officials have arrested three people, one for smoking crack under a bridge, the state seems to have its scapegoat.

The warrant states Eleby set a chair on top of a shopping cart and lit it on fire. That begs the question about who authorized what exactly to be stored there for 11 years, but instead we're too busy reading stories about a man with mental illness in a jumpsuit. Sleight of hand trick?

Eleby's story highlights the systemic problem in our society not only of untreated addiction, but of denying the mentally ill resources. The fact that Eleby had been arrested 19 times in the last 15 years, according to Fulton County jail records, shows how apathetic our leaders have become. Elected officials are more preoccupied with building baseball stadiums for the Braves than in creating intervention programs for people struggling with addiction.


Because taxpayers, while angry enough to vote out of office the Cobb County commissioner responsible for bringing the Braves out of Atlanta, 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.

Well this time it blew up in our faces.

I told myself, while trying desperately to light a crack rock as gusts of wind whipped my face, that no one loved me and no one cared where I was or what would become of me under that bridge. I was a lost twenty-something-year-old who purposefully pursued drugs as an escape from pain and negativity. Without any solid coping mechanisms, my anxiety and frustration fettered me.

Eleby and I could have been classmates in high school. My wealthy parents fostered my independence to the point of enabling my self-destruction, while we don't know why or how Eleby ended up living under that bridge.

A Facebook user named Allen Dean posted a comment that went viral hours after the warrant for Eleby's arrest was reported. Dean said he'd met Eleby and tried to help him years ago, but Eleby suffered not only from addiction and poverty but also had a lower than average intelligence.

This is not the sort of person lawmakers seek to help for many reasons, not the least of which is likelihood of relapse. Dean said Eleby lived under that bridge to be closer to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

I don't know what it would cost for local cities in the metro Atlanta area to provide solid resources for homeless people to treat mental health issues and combat addiction, but I will go out on a limb and say it would have been money well spent if it kept a man with a crack addiction from burning down a bridge that will now take at least $10 million and several months to repair. That's what the federal government has already agreed to send to Georgia.

One in four of us has a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Those like me have what doctors call a borderline personality disorder. I was a high-functioning mess who'd followed a syringe down the depression rabbit hole because I couldn’t maintain a stable relationship and every emotional injury felt like my flesh was on fire.

I had to learn to breathe air without gulping, how to meditate and calm my mind along with my blood pressure.

AA and its sister Narcotics Anonymous didn't help me much. I used the meetings as a way to connect to those who'd drag me further down. Looking for love in all the wrong places, apparently.

After a few misdemeanor arrests led to felony charges, I tried again to get well and moved back in with my mom about 2007. What saved me was unconditional love from a man who supported my best intentions and acted as an anchor. When he had to bail me out after a binge, I told myself it was time to get serious or give up because he didn’t deserve to go through what I’d put my family and previous lovers through.

I was smart enough to recognize what was wrong, but I didn't have the methods to process emotion and cope with stress. Quite easily I could have slipped back into the vicious circles and ruined any chance I’d had of getting into college or getting a job. Eleby’s many arrests would have prevented him from getting a job or a loan for college.

Every addiction story is different and cities struggling with a homelessness problem are symptoms of a sick system. As there was nothing so wrong with me it couldn't be fixed, so it is with society. It's just going to take the same amounts of emergency financial investment, education and patience as Atlanta will be requiring for months.

Whatever happens to Eleby, we should see that this wasn't entirely his fault. Like leaving paint on the counter where toddlers are playing, someone should have realized what was at stake. Someone should step up and take responsibility for the wasted and obviously flammable materials. Someone should admit society is failing the less fortunate who need help, homes, and unconditional love.

Were Basil Eleby able to get the support and opportunities I had by virtue of a wealthy family, you might be reading a different story right now.

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