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Arkansas Inspector Fired, Ignored I-40 Bridge Damage; Criminal Probe Possible

Daniel Breen

The Arkansas Department of Transportation has fired a bridge inspector who failed to notice damage on at least two separate occasions on a now-closed bridge over the Mississippi River.

Department officials said they terminated the inspector Monday over his failure to notice damage to the Interstate 40 Mississippi River bridge during inspections one year apart, in Sept. of 2019 and 2020. This comes after the department identified a contractor's drone footage dating back to May 2019 showing significant damage.

ARDOT director Lorie Tudor says the department has contacted the FBI to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.

“Our investigation not only revealed the negligence of an employee, it also revealed a process failure that is a responsibility of ARDOT,” Tudor said. “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.”

The employee, whose name has not been released, allegedly did not perform a hands-on, inch-by-inch inspection of the 48-year-old bridge and did not notice a crack in one of the bridge’s load-bearing beams. A team of contractors found the crack last week, forcing the closure of the bridge.

Credit Arkansas Department of Transportation
An image from drone footage shows the crack in the I-40 Mississippi River bridge as it appeared in June 2019.

Tudor says the department has begun an internal investigation into supervisors and other members of the former inspector’s team.

“We still have an investigation, it’s ongoing, but we’re not stopping right here at this employee. We’re making sure it’s not any kind of systemic, or there’s some other negligence involved,” Tudor said.

Tudor says the department will conduct a re-inspection of every fracture-critical bridge that was inspected by the former employee. Meanwhile, the Tennessee Department of Transportation will conduct an inspection of the Interstate 55 bridge, which currently serves as the only other road connection between Memphis, Tenn. and West Memphis, Ark.

Rex Vines, ARDOT Deputy Director and Chief Engineer, said the first of a two-part repair to the bridge should hopefully begin later this week.

“Phase 2 is still being refined at this time, but they’re contemplating using high-strength steel rods to span the fracture and restore the strength to the beam. After this, the fractured section of the beam… will be removed, and a new girder will be replaced,” Vines said.

Vines says the bridge will not be open to traffic during the first phase of repairs, which will involve placing steel plates over the fractured beam to allow workers to safely complete further repairs.

You can view an unedited clip of 2019 drone footage of damage to the bridge below.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.
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