Commentary: Who's To Blame For I-85 Collapse?
Three homeless people are in police custody in connection with the I-85 fire. One of them is Basil Eleby, who is charged with first-degree arson and criminal damage. He was allegedly smoking crack under I-85. In a commentary, freelance journalist George Chidi says there’s more blame to go around.
It’s not that I don’t believe that someone stupidly set fire to the combustible conduit stored under the bridge. The very quick arrest and arson charges for Basil Eleby may or may not be sustained. There will be hearings, and perhaps a trial. Assuming Eleby doesn’t simply cut a deal, like 90 percent of indigent criminal defendants do.
I don’t really care.
Let me state the obvious: whoever is responsible for storing material under the interstate that could melt a bridge had better still be in prison when Eleby gets out.
The Department of Transportation bears the true burden for this disaster. And that may be why state investigators quickly made an arrest of someone who doesn’t work in a business suit.
The follow-up news stories weren’t looking at the chain of command, working their way down from GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry, trying to figure out who had the legal authority to allow high-density plastic conduit to be stored under the highway.
Instead, it’s the easy story — pictures of the black guy in an orange jumpsuit that they’ve done a thousand times before. And, because it’s easy to report, everyone reported it, burying the real questions under a wave of sensational news about an alleged crackhead burning down I-85.
Take a look at the stacks there, of a product made from petroleum, stored up against the pylons of the bridge, and tell me a fire marshal would sign off on that.
I think someone violated policy. Someone has apparently been violating policy for about a decade — McMurry said it had been under there since as early as 2006.
None of the executives in GDOT’s organizational chart have the words “safety” or “security” in their job title. Whoever’s job it is to figure out whether there are systematic risks to the transportation infrastructure in this town isn’t important enough to name.
The buck is going to be passed. Someone is inevitably going to argue that this kind of catastrophe could not have been predicted, that this type of conduit isn’t normally all that flammable, and that no one in charge of anything important at GDOT should be held responsible for a decision made 10 years ago to store the stuff under a bridge.
It will be described as an organizational failure, because the department isn’t set up with an internal inspection system to catch these kinds of problems. They will say that they took security precautions by storing it behind a locked gate.
They’ll blame the crackhead.
The moment we hear anything like that will be the moment we should ask for Russell McMurry’s resignation.
Basil Eleby should not be the only person facing serious criminal charges today.
They’re slapping the wrong face on this mess.