Police: Falling bridge debris snarls Atlanta route

August 14, 2011
Part of the 17th Street bridge that spans Atlanta's downtown connector collapsed onto the northbound lanes of Interstate 85 before midnight on on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011, causing large traffic delays in the midtown area of Atlanta. The crumbled metalwork can be seen in the lower right of this photo, At this time it is not known if there were any injuries.   (AP Photo/Dave Tulis)
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Part of the 17th Street bridge that spans Atlanta's downtown connector collapsed onto the northbound lanes of Interstate 85 before midnight on on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011, causing large traffic delays in the midtown area of Atlanta. The crumbled metalwork can be seen in the lower right of this photo, At this time it is not known if there were any injuries. (AP Photo/Dave Tulis)

ATLANTA (AP) — Metal railings rained down onto a heavily traveled interstate in downtown Atlanta from a landmark bridge late Saturday night, narrowly missing vehicles on the key corridor and shutting off traffic both ways for hours during the night, authorities and motorists said.

No one was reported injured when the aluminum fencing and canopy supports for a pedestrian walkway on the bridge crumbled above the main Downtown Connector shortly before midnight, said Karlene Barron, communications director of the Georgia Department of Transportation.

"We're extremely thankful nobody got hurt," Barron told The Associated Press.

She said inspectors determined early Sunday that the 17th Street Bridge remained structurally sound but it appeared a secondary structure of aluminum fencing and walkway canopy supports atop the bridge had given way in one area.

"It caused a sort of zipper effect because of the weight. One part failed and it just kind of ripped everything down," she said, citing the initial inspection.

She said the debris fell over the northbound side of the Downtown Connector about where Interstates 75 and 85 meet.

Traffic backed up for miles, but police then re-routed motorists on other highways in and around Atlanta. The snarled corridor is one of the most heavily traveled in the area, snaking through the center of Atlanta. Barron told AP later Sunday morning that traffic was again flowing in both directions after sunrise.

She said contractors would be at the bridge in coming hours to remove other sections of railing that hadn't fallen and that could result in at least partial closures of lanes later in the day or night.

Motorist Reggie Lee told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he saw something falling from the bridge as he was driving on the Downtown Connector and knew he had to stop carefully. But he said he didn't want to cause a pileup and tried to ease up gently because of traffic.

"I knew I had to brake slowly, try to give people behind me time to stop," Lee said. "No one hit anybody."

Lee said the debris landed about 10 feet from his car and missed falling on any of the other vehicles in the area.

Early Sunday, crews brought in dump trucks, cranes and flatbed trucks to remove the debris.

An Associated Press reporter at the scene before dawn Sunday said the immediate area around the bridge had emptied of all but police cars and other emergency vehicles — like one vast, empty parking lot.

The bridge opened in March 2004 and links Atlanta's Midtown with a bustling live-in community of shops, trendy restaurants and homes just across the Downtown Connector on the other side. Some of the debris was seen on a ramp.

Police cars with lights flashing had blocked all ramps nearby. Carloads of young people gawked as they slowly drove past on neighboring streets early Sunday.

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Associated Press Writer Norm Gomlak contributed to this report.

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Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com