An inspector from the Arkansas Department of Transportation has been fired for failing to identify a crack in a bridge connecting Arkansas and Tennessee that led to the closure of the bridge last week, the agency said Monday.
Although officials did not name the inspector, Rex Weins, deputy director and chief engineer at the Arkansas Department of Transportation, told a news conference Monday that “the same person was team leader in both inspections” in 2019 and 2020
“He didn’t see it,” Lori Tudor, director of the department, told a news conference. “But the reason he didn̵
The bridge deck and substructure are inspected annually by the Arkansas Department of Transportation, said Dave Parker, a spokesman for the department. In addition, the department hires a private contractor every two years to inspect the top 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 to Arkansas, the agency said. This performer noticed that a critical beam was broken to the point of being almost cut off and called 911: “We need to get the people off the bridge immediately!”
The bridge, also known as the Hernando de Soto Bridge, remains closed.
Drone footage in 2019 shows evidence of a crack in the bridge over the Mississippi River, meaning it was twice unreported by a staff inspector, the agency said.
The bridge, on Interstate 40, opened in 1973 and is two 900 feet apart. It is monitored by government transportation officials in both Tennessee and Arkansas; Arkansas is in charge of inspections and Tennessee is in charge of maintenance, officials said. The Arkansas Department of Transportation is responsible for inspecting 13,610 bridges, according to Mr. Weins.
After the bridge was closed last week, Arkansas transportation officials reviewed previous inspections of the bridge. The drone footage of the bridge was recorded in May 2019 by a contractor working for Michael Baker International. An Arkansas Department of Transportation official inspected the bridge in September, the department said.
Asked why the crack had not been detected earlier if it had been seen in the drone video, Ms. Tudor said the video was about five hours “and less than a second” long, indicating the crack. .
She added that the external contractor was not responsible for the supervision. Referring to her department, she said: “It’s ARDOT’s fault that we didn’t find it during our normal inspection process.”
Ms Tudor and Mr Weins said the department would update the way it reviews infrastructure inspections, but did not announce any specific changes on Monday.
More than 35,000 vehicles cross the bridge every day – about a third of them in commercial traffic. After closing, these vehicles had to rely on the only other bridge nearby as a diversion. Another alternative requires driving more than 100 miles north and crossing to Missouri.
Ships were prevented from crossing the bridge, but those restrictions were lifted by the U.S. Coast Guard on Friday.
It was not clear when the bridge could be safely reopened. Mr Weins said the repairs would most likely be done in two phases. The first set will stabilize the bridge enough to allow additional work to be done, he said. Car traffic could resume after the second phase, he said.
In general, Ms. Tudor said that the problematic transport departments face more than one bridge or one inspector. “Will we see more and more of these types of maintenance issues ahead?” And the answer is absolute, “she told reporters on Monday. “We have an aging infrastructure.”
The suspension of the bridge underscores the disintegration of national infrastructure and the dangers it may pose. President Biden has called on Congress to allow money for an ambitious and costly proposal to overhaul and modernize bridges, as well as roads, airports, public transportation, railroads and ports across America.
Ms. Tudor said she wanted to fund the effort. “Yes, we will see more and more maintenance challenges as we move forward, so we all hope that Congress will adopt some kind of infrastructure package in the near future,” she said. “We hope that everyone will learn from our failure here.”