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Gridlock Guy: How WSB Triple Team Traffic covered the I-85 tanker fire
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Gridlock Guy: How WSB Triple Team Traffic covered the I-85 tanker fire

A fatal multivehicle crash caused a massive fire that blocked all northbound lanes of I-85 in Gwinnett County.

Gridlock Guy: How WSB Triple Team Traffic covered the I-85 tanker fire

Last Saturday was unforgettable along I-85 in Norcross. In fact, one didn’t have to be anywhere near the tragedy that exploded into calamity on I-85/northbound at Jimmy Carter Boulevard to see or hear about what will be one of the biggest traffic stories of 2020.

A Freightliner tanker truck carrying an 8,500-pound fuel shipment slammed into a car in the second right lane. The Volkswagen had just been in a small crash and stopped in the road. The impact sent the tanker truck sideways and flipping multiple times.

The crash killed the drivers of the truck and the car, and it also sent the flammable shipment into massive flames. Fire birthed explosions, as people in the middle of the interstate fled their cars and crews evacuated nearby businesses along Dawson Boulevard. The massive collision caused fuel to leak into the freeway drainage system, catching fire and shooting out of the I-85/southbound drains, shutting that side of the freeway down.

» RELATED: Victims ID’d in fatal fiery crash on I-85 in Gwinnett

Everything about this conflagration was epic and WSB’s radio and TV coverage began with the keen eyes and ears of Triple Team Traffic reporter Mike Shields. Shields prepared for his top of the hour traffic reports for 95.5 WSB and Channel 2 Action News, duties he shares off-camera on the weekends with Veronica Harrell. At just after 8 a.m., Shields heard both DeKalb and Gwinnett police on our emergency scanner system dispatched to a call. 

“I heard them looking for something. They didn’t say what it was, it was a report of a crash,” Shields told Smilin’ Mark McKay and me on our most recent WSB Traffic Podcast.

As Shields searched the sensors on our Triple Team Traffic Alerts App and the WSB Jam Cams, everything took a dramatic turn. “I hear this screaming over one of the scanners and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness.’” A former City of Marietta police officer, Shields knows better than any of us on the team that first responders see enough carnage to not exclaim like that at just anything. 

“(I clicked on) always my go-to cam: over there at I-85 and Jimmy Carter — camera 87.” The public can view any GDOT camera, and we on the Traffic Team see them on a private system that makes us one of the few media properties that can actually move them. We do this so often that many of us have certain cameras memorized by number, so they are easier to find. When Shields got “good ol’ 87” to load, the situation was very bad.

“It was just this massive ball of fire covering the entire interstate, I-85/northbound,” Shields explained, noting it was 8:01 a.m. - a time he will never forget. “My jaw just dropped. I immediately called our TV producer, Kimberly Page.” Shields continued: “I said, ‘You have to take me now.’” Shields said as soon as Page saw this, she knew it was severe. “At about 8:02 or 8:03 we went live on Channel 2 with it, breaking in.”

» RELATED: Remembering WSB’s Pete Combs and the I-85 plane landing

Shields’ and Page’s quick actions allowed Channel 2 to switch its opening block of the news show and get Shields on the air with this critical information and breathtaking live video. Fire engulfed the freeway in a way Atlanta hasn’t seen since the disastrous I-85 bridge collapse in March of 2017. Atlanta gasped again. 

Shields then jumped on 95.5 WSB with the shocking news. “These flames are huge and I’m hearing Gwinnett County say that this may be a tanker truck involved,” Shields dispatched to WSB Radio’s listeners during that 8:05 traffic report, issuing a one of our traffic RED ALERTS for the closure. I-85/southbound would soon join that rank as the fire spread.

“At that point we notified our radio news desk and our music stations so that everybody knew what was going on,” Shields said.

An event of this magnitude transcends listeners and viewers just interested in news and traffic. It even became a national story, as ABC World News Tonight used an actuality of Shields and Ch. 2 anchor Sophia Choi narrating the harrowing video.

The intense fire damaged the pavement on I-85/northbound, forcing crews to have to scrape off the top pavement layer and replace it, GDOT said. While I-85/southbound reopened within a couple of hours, the repaving of I-85/northbound pushed its closure up to dinner time: 10 hours. Shields also noted that after the crash scene cleared, GDOT HERO Units had to tow away abandoned cars, a la 2014’s Snowmageddon. Surreal.

I had to call in Alex Williams to fill in on Saturday, unbeknownst to us that I-85 was burning. We each lost our breaths after that phone call.

“I got a quick shower and got in there, because I knew I needed to help him,” Williams said of his arrival 45 minutes early.

Williams handled most of the radio responsibilities, as Shields did extra reports on Ch. 2. They both dealt with extreme call volume from our Traffic Troopers and had to continue updating our app, Twitter accounts and monitoring the rest of the craziness on the Atlanta roads.

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Gridlock Guy: How WSB Triple Team Traffic covered the I-85 tanker fire

Deep into the I-85 closure, I-20/eastbound shut down at Highway 138 (Exit 82) in Conyers with what became a

fatality crash investigation. Williams noticed big delays out that way and pulled up a WSB Jam Cam in the area that showed no traffic moving toward it.

“Alright, we’ve got another RED ALERT,” Williams recounted. “And this one ended up creeping on for hours, so I had those two things to cover.” 95.5 WSB had to carry UGA basketball that afternoon, so Williams had to work to squeeze in quick traffic reports on these two problems and also somehow also convey the terrible delays on I-285 in both directions in Fulton and Cobb counties near Hollowell Parkway. Construction took out multiple lanes on the west side.

» RELATED: Gridlock Guy: The urbanist view on street design

This was a brain-scrambling mess, but Williams and Shields handled it with poise and urgency, and their extra efforts alerted drivers on the air and digitally as soon as possible of the closures. They gave the context and timeliness that a robot-powered, algorithmic app simply cannot on its own.

“We are the Atlanta traffic experts. We’re always on the offensive; we’re always looking for things,” Shields spoke of the entire WSB Traffic Team. And he is one of our newer members.

Just as one should be weather-aware in times of severe weather, one should also be traffic-aware. Atlanta’s commute can change terribly at any time. And there is no better place to turn to on the air, on mobile devices, and online than WSB Triple Team Traffic. Last Saturday’s cataclysm is yet another reminder.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com .

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