A fracture that caused a vital bridge connecting Tennessee and Arkansas to close last week had actually been there since 2019, officials say, and the worker who didn’t notice it was fired.
The crack was discovered Tuesday during a routine inspection of the Interstate 40 Hernando DeSoto Bridge, which runs over the Mississippi River. The bridge was then closed to interstate and waterway traffic. It has since reopened to river traffic but remains closed to vehicular traffic.
Officials said last week that a 2020 inspection of the bridge didn’t reveal “any structural deficiencies.” But now, the Arkansas Department of Transportation says it found evidence of earlier damage to the bridge.
Arkansas DOT Director Lorie Tudor said during a news conference Monday that a photo from a drone video showed the fracture was visible in 2019 — and that the department determined the employee who inspected the bridge in 2019 and 2020 “failed to carry out his responsibilities correctly.”
“This is unacceptable and this employee has been terminated as of this morning,” Tudor said.
She said the department is referring the situation to federal authorities to determine if it requires further investigation, criminal or otherwise.
The department shared part of the 2019 drone footage on its YouTube channel Monday. The crack can be seen along the steel beam about 25 seconds into the video.
Tudor said a “failure in the inspection process” allowed the fracture to go unnoticed.
“He didn’t see it,” she said of the worker. “But the reason he didn’t see it is because he wasn’t following proper protocol. The way we’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.”
The full drone footage from 2019 of the cables and rods was five hours long, she said, but the crack in the beam was only shown for a brief moment and therefore not discovered.
Tudor emphasized that the crack going unnoticed is not the fault of Michael Baker International, which took the drone footage and discovered the issue last week.
“The fault lies with ARDOT that we didn’t discover it during our normal inspection process,” she said.
Tudor said the fracture grew between 2019 and 2021 due to weather and “stress and strain” on the bridge.
“But the bridge was still intact which we are very, very grateful for,” she said.
The bridge’s closure sparked concerns from some experts about shipping and supply delays as the area is one of the heaviest freight corridors in the country.
But transportation officials said Monday they don’t yet have a timeline for reopening the bridge to drivers.
Rex Vines, deputy director and chief engineer with the Arkansas DOT, said during a news conference that officials developed a temporary design plan to stabilize the structure and are refining a design for a permanent repair.
The design was sent to several area contractors with a request for proposals and qualifications, which were due Monday morning. After a contractor is selected for the repairs, officials will develop a timeline for reopening the bridge, Vines said.
Repairs will be done in two phases, Vines said. The first will add steel plating to the outside of the beam to stabilize it and allow work to be done on the structure. The second, which is still being “refined,” could use “high-strength steel rods” to restore strength to the beam and then replace the section with the fracture, he said.
Officials hope phase two will allow them to reopen the bridge to vehicular traffic.