The lead inspector with the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) tasked with scouring Memphis’s Mississippi River-spanning Hernando de Soto Bridge for structural deficiencies has been fired. A recent examination of drone footage from May 2019 showed that a major crack in one of the bridge’s 900-foot horizontal steel beams had been present for at least two years.
The crack in question was discovered on May 11 by a team of private contractors dispatched by ARDOT to inspect the heavily trafficked bridge, which carries Interstate 40 across the Mississippi between Tennessee and Arkansas. The discovery prompted the immediate shutdown of both traffic on the six-lane bridge and the movement of barges beneath it. Although barge traffic has since resumed following a disruptive stalling of vessels traveling along the lower Mississippi as ordered by the United States Coast Guard, the bridge remains indefinitely closed to vehicular traffic as crews embark on emergency repairs. (Because this is Memphis, the backup involved rib delivery to frustrated barge operators stuck along the waterway.)
“This fracture had the potential of becoming a catastrophic event that was prevented by our staff’s diligent effort in managing our bridge inspection program,” ARDOT Director Lorie Tudor said during a May 12 news conference, explaining to reporters that the crack was “crucial to the structural integrity” of the aging through truss-bridge, which opened in 1973 as the newer of two Mississippi-spanning bridges in Memphis. Traffic has been since been rerouted to the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge, which was completed in 1949 and carries I-55 across the river. Inspectors are now examining that smaller and older bridge to ensure it can accommodate the sharp influx of traffic.
“He didn’t see it,” relayed Tudor at a May 17 news briefing per the New York Times. “But the reason he didn’t see it is because he wasn’t following proper protocol.” Tudor explained that the inspector was required to “literally go inch by inch along that beam and physically inspect every inch of the beam.” However, “that did not happen,” said Tudor.
“This is unacceptable and this employee has been terminated as of this morning,” Tudor told reporters.
While the identity of the fired ARDOT inspector wasn’t immediately disclosed, he has since been identified as Monty Frazier. First hired as a mechanic by the agency in 2006, Frazier could potentially face charges for the egregious oversight. Meanwhile, ARDOT is scrutinizing nine other “critical” bridges across the state that Frazier inspected over the past year. The re-inspection of these bridges should wrap up by June according to local Fox affiliate KRLT.
ARDOT and the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) largely share responsibility for the I-40 bridge, with the former managing regular inspections and the latter overseeing repairs and maintenance.
While the aforementioned drone footage has led officials to believe that the fracture originated in 2019 and has since grown in severity and size, newly released photos of the bridge taken by kayaker Barry W. Moore suggest that it was potentially present as far back as 2016. Transportation officials have yet to confirm or deny that what is seen in Moore’s photos, captured from the waterway in August 2016, is indeed the crack that prompted the bridge’s emergency closure nearly five years later.
Moore, a retiree who lives in suburban Memphis, told the Associated Press that he unearthed and reexamined the photos of the bridge taken on the 2016 group kayaking excursion after learning of last week’s discovery of the crack.
“I’m just glad I took photos,” Moore told the AP. “I think the engineers need to know what state it was really in five years ago.”
“I can’t really comment as to the accuracy of these photos,” Dave Parker, an ARDOT spokesperson, told the AP when asked for comment.
The Hernando de Soto Bridge will likely remain closed to traffic for several months.