In the past few days, first responders have rightly received high praise for their quick and effective response to the Interstate collapse that left Atlanta stunned and questioning how this could happen.
From directing traffic to actually putting out the intense flames that brought a chunk of I-85 falling down, first responders worked tirelessly – even in the rain – to make sure Atlantans were safe.
Now, 11Alive hearing for the first time from the first two officers to arrive at the scene. Our Duffie Dixon spoke with the two, who are sharing their story.
Atlanta Police Officers Hernandez and Severance said they may have been the first two on the scene, but they said what happened in the minutes that followed was total teamwork from all of Zone 2.
The officers were on a patrol when they got a call about smoke not far from where they were on Piedmont Road.
“We were about to cross underneath the bridge when we noticed the smoke coming out from underneath the bridge,” Severance said. “Soon as we got a little closer, we saw the flames coming.”
Severance said they noticed the fire coming from an area under the I-85 overpass where construction materials were being stored. Hernandez said they quickly knew it was about to become much worse.
“Immediately, we noticed it was going to get bigger than it was, quickly, so we requested fire to step it up,” Hernandez recalled. “We wanted to make sure everyone was safe. My partner got to the radio and requested fire.”
PHOTOS: Fire burning under Atlanta Interstate
Within moments fellow officers from Zone 2 arrived to help. The big concern? The interstate overhead that was packed with rush hour traffic.
“The special teams, the FIT teams and the beat units, they all worked together and got that interstate shut down very quickly,” Severance told 11Alive. “We got what cars we could get on Buford Highway, and then we just started turning them around and sending them back up Piedmont so we could get that whole area clear for the fire trucks to arrive.”
The biggest challenge, the officers said, was trying to see through the smoke. At times they say they could barely breathe.
“The best way I could describe it is plastic,” Hernandez said, “burned plastic.”
Then, later, they started hearing what sounded like bangs going off, “Like little small explosions,” Severance said. “One right after another.”
Eventually, it became clear that they were sounds that the bridge was coming down.
“Our first thought is the firefighters,” Severance said “They're up underneath there actually trying to put the fire out.”
The officers told 11Alive the next few minutes felt much longer than that, but they finally got the word – no one was injured. Not a firefighter, not an officer, not even one single driver. “This could have been a real disaster,” Severance said.
“The bridge is not there any more, but it’s a good outcome given the fact that it was rush hour,” Hernandez said. “It could have been much worse.”