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Three arrested over fire that caused Atlanta highway overpass to collapse

Three people have been arrested in connection with a fire that collapsed an elevated portion of a major road in Atlanta and shut down the heavily travelled route through the heart of the city.

Deputy insurance commissioner Jay Florence said Basil Eleby faces a charge of criminal damage to property, and Sophia Bruner and Barry Thomas are charged with criminal trespass.

"We believe they were together when the fire was set and Eleby is the one who set the fire," Mr Florence told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

He would not discuss how the fire was started or why, saying the details would be released as the investigation progresses.

Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on streets near the shut-down portion of Interstate 85 as drivers were forced to take a detour the day after the blaze.

The collapse happened a few miles north of the city centre, and the effects could fall most heavily on commuters from Atlanta's densely populated northern suburbs, who will have to find other routes to work or ride mass transport systems.

Georgia transportation commissioner Russell McMurry said 350ft of highway will need to be replaced in both directions on I-85, which carries about 400,000 cars a day through the city and is one of the South's most important north-south routes.

He said repairs will take months but declined to be more specific.

The collapse effectively "puts a cork in the bottle", Georgia State Patrol Commissioner Mark McDonough said.

The fire broke out on Thursday afternoon in an area used to store state-owned construction materials and equipment, sending flames and smoke high into the air. Fire authorities said they had not determined how the blaze started.

Mr McMurry said his department stored coils of plastic conduit used in fibre optic networks beneath the span but insisted they were non-combustible.

No injuries were reported from the fire and collapse. Firefighters shut down the section of highway before it gave way, and made it to safety themselves after hearing the road cracking and seeing concrete go flying, authorities said.

US transportation secretary Elaine Chao released 10 million dollars (£8 million) for the initial repair work, and the Federal Highway Administration promised more in emergency repair funds.

Officials gave no estimate of how much the job would cost.

Built in 1953 and renovated in 1985, the span scored high in its most recent inspection, receiving a rating of 94.6 out of 100 in 2015, said Natalie Dale, a spokeswoman for Georgia Transportation Department.

Lauren Stewart, director of the Structural Engineering and Materials Laboratory at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, said intense heat can compromise even steel-reinforced concrete.

"With fires, especially fires that burn for long periods and with high heat, you can see structures, anything from buildings to bridges, can have their material properties degrade," Ms Stewart said.

AP

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