Inspector who missed crack in I-40 bridge beam fired, may face charges, Arkansas officials say

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A bridge inspector who failed to note a major crack in a beam in the Hernando DeSoto Bridge in both 2019 and 2020 has been terminated, the Arkansas Department of Transportation said Monday.

The Hernando DeSoto I-40 bridge, one of two major interstate routes over the Mississippi River at Memphis, was closed to traffic May 11 after a large crack was found in a steel beam.

Though the damage was not noted on recent inspection reports, ARDOT officials said last week they had evidence of the crack in a drone video from 2019.

ARDOT Director Lorie Tudor said Monday an investigation determined that the same employee who carried out inspections in 2019 and 2020 failed to notice that damage.

“We should have discovered this crack in the beam in 2019, and we are taking steps to hold those responsible for not doing their jobs accountable. But more importantly to correct the flaws in our process,” Tudor said.

That employee was terminated, and the matter was referred to federal authorities for possible criminal investigation, Tudor said.

The employee, who was not identified, was first put on leave without pay before termination. The person had been on the job about 15 years, officials said.

“He didn’t see it. But the reason he didn’t see it was because he wasn’t following proper protocol. The way you’re supposed to inspect a bridge is you literally go inch by inch along that beam and physically inspect every inch of the beam. That did not happen,” Tudor said.

ARDOT released this image they said showed the crack on the I-40 bridge from a video taken in 2019. An inspector who missed that damage was terminated.

All bridges inspected by that employee over the past year will be re-inspected, Tudor said. The department is continuing to investigate.

“We will correct this problem, and we will become better for it,” she said.

The department is committed to correcting the problem by doing both in-person and drone video inspections, Tudor said.

Tudor said the department is working with Tennessee to get a drone inspection done on the I-55 bridge, which is currently carrying all traffic between Tennessee and Arkansas at Memphis. The state is also working to get traffic moving on the I-40 bridge as soon as possible.

“We recently purchased a drone to review bridges. This will be an addition to hands-on inspection,” Tudor said.

Tennessee and Arkansas share maintenance on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge. ARDOT is responsible for inspections of this bridge and more than 13,000 others. The Hernando DeSoto Bridge was inspected every 12 months.

ARDOT said they are unable to give a timeline on when traffic will be restored on the bridge.

Reopening the bridge is important, officials said, because I-40 is a major freight corridor, and the closure affects not only commuters but the economy. The bridge carried nearly 40,000 cars a day, many of them trucks transporting goods.

The fracture was found by happenstance last week by a third-party contractor who was inspecting the bridge’s arches and cables.

Monday, Tudor commended that inspector saying, “We are grateful for their quick action.”

ARDOT and TDOT selected Omaha, Nebraska-based Kiewit Corporation to perform the repairs to the Memphis bridge, ARDOT officials said Monday. The company will begin discussing phases I and II of the repair process this week.

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