Traffic in Atlanta was reported backed up for miles as fire crews battled a major fire along a stretch of highway. The fire also caused a section of freeway to collapse. (Reuters)

Three people have been charged in connection to a Thursday fire north of downtown Atlanta that resulted in the collapse of an elevated span of Interstate 85, a major city thoroughfare that connects five states.

Basil Eleby is charged with first-degree arson and first-degree criminal damage to property, a felony. His bail was set at $200,000. Sophia Bruner and Barry Thomas were charged with criminal trespass, and investigators said more charges could be pending.

The three had gathered under the bridge to smoke crack, according to an arrest affidavit obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Eleby told investigators he regularly passes through the area on the way to his job at a nearby tire shop, according to the affidavit. Although Eleby denied setting the fire, Thomas said he watched Eleby place a chair on top of a shopping cart near fiber optic wire stored in PVC pipes under the bridge and ignite the piece of furniture. Then they scattered.

The fire was “maliciously set,” Sgt. Cortez Stafford, a spokesman for the Atlanta Fire Department, told The Washington Post. Investigators spoke with the suspects Friday night but have not released more details on what the threesome was doing before the fire broke out. The fire quickly grew out of control as the flames consumed the pipes that had been under the elevated highway for more than a decade. Storing pipes under highways is neither dangerous nor uncommon, Stafford said.

Eleby, 39, made his appearance before a judge Saturday morning. He has a lengthy arrest record, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — 19 arrests since 1995, mostly for drug offenses. Investigators think he and the two other people arrested are homeless, Stafford said.

The fire was started around rush hour Thursday under an elevated span of the highway north of downtown. The major commuter route carries 400,000 cars a day, according to the Associated Press. I-85 also carries interstate traffic from five states, running from Montgomery, Ala., to Petersburg, Va.

Stafford said homeless people have been known to congregate in the area under the elevated stretch, part of which is accessible via railroad tracks near Piedmont Road.

The blaze sent black smoke billowing high over the city. Passersby initially thought it was a car fire, but when firefighters reached the scene, they realized it was more serious, Stafford said.

By then, the heat was so intense that firefighters could not get close enough to hose down the flames.

“You could feel the heat coming off the 85 intersection. It made access under the bridge impossible,” Stafford said. “It was like a blast furnace. It was like a 50-foot wall of fire.”

Things quickly worsened, said Stafford, who arrived a few minutes after the call was dispatched.

The firefighters “noticed chunks of concrete starting to fall. They noticed the concrete pillars starting to deteriorate.”

Emergency personnel made the decision to back off, Stafford said. “A few minutes after that decision was made, a large section came crashing down in one big piece.”

[Fiery highway collapse may snarl Atlanta traffic for months]

No one was injured in the incident, in part because officials had stopped traffic on the highway and gotten gawking onlookers away, Stafford said.

The fire damaged 700 feet of highway, which will have to be replaced, an effort that will take months, according to a news release from the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Demolition began this weekend, and the U.S. Department of Transportation has jump-started the rebuilding effort with $10 million in federal funds.

Watch: Fire investigators ascend from collapse I-85 collapse zone after inspectors ruin – https://t.co/7ST2hJckjU#85collapse#Atlantapic.twitter.com/0b5mhWJ3rN

— John Spink (@johnjspink) March 31, 2017

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The scene in Atlanta after an elevated portion of a highway collapsed
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The disaster, which shut down a heavily traveled route, was caused by a fire in an area used to store construction materials.
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The disaster, which shut down a heavily traveled route, was caused by a fire in an area used to store construction materials.
March 30, 2017 Smoke billows from a section of an overpass that collapsed from a large fire on Interstate 85 in Atlanta. No injuries were reported.David Goldman/AP

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