Inspector Who Twice Missed Crack in Bridge Is Fired, Arkansas Officials Say

An inspector with the Arkansas Department of Transportation who twice failed to identify a crack in a bridge linking Arkansas and Tennessee that prompted the bridge’s closure last week has been fired, the department announced on Monday.

Though officials did not name the inspector, Rex Vines, deputy director and chief engineer of the Arkansas Department of Transportation, said at a news conference on Monday that “the same person was the team leader in both inspections” in 2019 and 2020.

“He didn’t see it,” Lorie Tudor, the department’s director, said at the news conference. “But the reason he didn’t see it is because he wasn’t following proper protocol.” The inspector was required to “literally go inch by inch along that beam and physically inspect every inch of the beam,” she said, adding, “That did not happen.”

The bridge deck and substructure are inspected every year by the Arkansas Department of Transportation, Dave Parker, a spokesman for the department, said. Additionally, the department hires a private contractor every two years to inspect the upper portion of the bridge, including its cables and higher extensions, Mr. Parker said.

The problem was spotted on May 11 by a private contractor during an inspection of the bridge, which reaches from downtown Memphis into Arkansas, the agency said. That contractor noticed a critical beam was fractured to the point of being nearly severed and called 911: “We need to get people off the bridge immediately!”

The bridge, also known as the Hernando de Soto Bridge, remains shut.

Drone footage in 2019 showed evidence of the crack on the bridge, which goes over the Mississippi River, meaning it had twice gone unreported by the staff inspector, the agency said.

The bridge, on Interstate 40, opened in 1973 and has two 900-foot spans. It is overseen by state transportation officials in both Tennessee and Arkansas; Arkansas is responsible for inspections, and Tennessee handles maintenance, officials said. The Arkansas Department of Transportation is responsible for inspecting 13,610 bridges, according to Mr. Vines.

After the bridge was closed last week, Arkansas transportation officials reviewed the bridge’s prior inspections. The drone footage of the bridge was recorded in May 2019 by a contractor working for Michael Baker International. The Arkansas Department of Transportation employee inspected the bridge that September, the department said.

When asked why the crack was not discovered sooner if it was visible on the drone video, Ms. Tudor said the video was about five hours long “and there’s like less than a second” of it that shows the crack.

She also said that the outside contractor was not responsible for the oversight. Referring to her department, she said, “The fault lies with ARDOT that we didn’t discover it during our normal inspection process.”

Ms. Tudor and Mr. Vines said the department would revamp how it reviews infrastructure inspections but did not announce any specific changes on Monday.

More than 35,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily — about a third of them commercial traffic. Since the closure, those vehicles have had to rely on the only other nearby bridge as a detour. Another alternative requires driving more than 100 miles north and crossing into Missouri.

Vessels had been prevented from passing beneath the bridge, but those restrictions were lifted by the United States Coast Guard on Friday.

It was unclear when the bridge could safely reopen. Mr. Vines said that repairs would most likely be made in two phases. The first set will stabilize the bridge enough to allow additional necessary work to be performed, he said. Vehicular traffic can resume after that second phase, he said.

Overall, Ms. Tudor said, the problem transportation departments were facing encompasses more than one bridge or one inspector. “Are we going to see more and more of these types of maintenance issues going forward? And the answer is absolutely,” she told reporters on Monday. “We have an aging infrastructure.”

The shutdown of the bridge has underscored the decay of the nation’s infrastructure and the dangers that it can pose. President Biden has urged Congress to authorize money for an ambitious and expensive proposal to overhaul and upgrade bridges as well as roads, airports, public transportation, railways and ports across America.

Ms. Tudor said she wanted to see that effort funded. “Yes, we will see more and more maintenance challenges as we move forward, and that’s why we are all hopeful that some type of infrastructure package will be passed by Congress in the near future,” she said. “Hopefully, everyone will learn from our failure here.”

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