President Donald Trump lauded the first responders who helped prevent any injuries in Atlanta’s fiery highway collapse on Thursday, and described how impressed he was with the “incredible” images of the fire.
“That was something. The whole world was watching that one,” Trump said in the White House’s Roosevelt Room. “Our brave firefighters battled 40-foot flames, which was incredible.”
“What was the reason for those flames? It was something underneath that was very combustible? Those flames were amazing,” he said.
Trump, surrounded by first responders from the Georgia State Police, Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, and the Atlanta Police Department, praised their “heroic” and “brave” actions two weeks ago.
The meeting came two weeks after an elevated portion of Interstate 85, a major north-south artery in the Southeast, collapsed during evening rush hour in Atlanta.
The issue began when a blaze ignited in a fenced-in area under the highway, where the state stored construction materials, officials said. The flames weakened the structure and caused its collapse, experts said.
All five lines of the highway in each direction have been closed since then, causing widespread traffic issues in the city.
Yet no one was injured in the fire and collapse. Shortly after arriving on the scene, firefighters sensed the highway’s collapse was imminent and stopped traffic on I-85, according to Atlanta Fire Rescue Department spokesman Sgt. Cortez Stafford.
“I believe that saved a lot of lives,” Stafford said at the time. “People were driving by, not paying attention, taking pictures with camera phones. My guys put a truck in the middle of the interstate and said, ‘Hey you can’t go by.’ “
Trump on Thursday similarly praised the “amazing” decision pull back from the scene before its collapse.
“They pulled back … just minutes before the bridge itself collapsed, and everybody was safe. That was an amazing thing, and everybody was watching,” he said. “Your skill and courage saved many lives, and represented true strength and the true strength of America.”
Authorities have arrested three people, including one man facing a first-degree arson charge, in connection with starting the fire.
$3.1 million incentives for speedy rebuild
The state of Georgia has kicked into high gear to rebuild the section of Interstate 85 that collapsed after the fire. The state has announced a series of incentives for the construction company rebuilding the highway.
US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has directed Federal Highway Administration officials to award $10 million for emergency repairs on the highway, she said in a statement.
Trump on Thursday said he approved that decision the same day as the fire.
“I had a feeling you’d need a little money,” he said. “That looked like a big money deal, right, Elaine?”
Trump also said the highway collapse was a “painful reminder of the critical importance of infrastructure.” His administration would be “doing a lot” with infrastructure in the coming weeks, he said.
Reconstruction of I-85 moved ahead Wednesday, with the Georgia Department of Transportation announcing it was close to a final agreement with C.W. Matthews Contracting Co. to expedite the work.
The agreement sets the project’s deadline at June 15, with incentives for completing it sooner. If the highway is finished earlier, C.W. Matthews could receive a maximum of $3.1 million in incentives, according to the Georgia DOT.
This type of incentives-based contract has been used for other similar highway collapses, such as those in Oakland, California, in 2007 and Birmingham, Alabama, in 2002.
The Georgia DOT lauded the “significant progress” in the past two weeks, including the demolition and removal of debris, engineering and design of the bridge, and the initial rebuilding.
“I am very impressed with how quickly Georgia DOT diagnosed the problem, completed the demolition and started construction, as well as how quickly this road will be reopened,” US Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia, said in a statement.