A terminated Arkansas Dept. of Transportation bridge inspector claims safety concerns associated with inspection equipment prevented him from spotting a tie-girder fracture that has forced a potentially months-long closure of the I-40 Mississippi River bridge near Memphis.

Monty Frazier, a 15-year ARDOT employee, served as team leader and under-bridge inspection unit operator for the agency’s scheduled annual fracture-critical inspections of the 50-year-old, 9,400-ft-long span, conducted in early September 2019 and 2020. Although Frazier reported no issues with the 24x32 in continuous welded beams that form the structure’s 900-ft-long, 110-ft-high arched navigation spans, drone video from a separate May 2019 inspection conducted by Michael Baker International indicated the crack had already begun to form on the tie-girder’s exterior.

By the time agency officials were alerted to fracture during a May 11 inspection, the tie-girder’s upper and outer flanges had separated, while the bottom flange was approximately 50-percent cracked. The bridge was immediately closed to traffic, sending the roughly 41,000 daily motorists in search of other routes while the bridge is repaired.

According to ARDOT documents released through a public records request by the Hot Springs, Ark., Village Voice newspaper, Frazier told Michael Hall, the agency’s heavy bridge maintenance engineer, that it was “unsafe” to move the under-bridge inspection unit along the outside of the tie-girder, where he could put himself within arm’s length of the structure as required by state inspection protocols.

Hall refuted Frazier’s claim in a May 14 termination memo, stating that “standard practice is to boom out along the tie girder, looking for cracks.” He also noted that Frazier had done this himself when another agency employee had controlled the under-bridge inspection unit, which is equipped with “safety features that keep one from moving into an unstable position.”

Hall also wrote that while the tie-girder fracture was severe enough to put the bridge in jeopardy of failing, “the crack was visible and would have been discovered if proper fracture critical inspection procedures were followed.” He concluded his memo by recommending that Frazier be terminated for “dereliction of duty.” Frazier appears to have left the agency that same day, according the public records.

ARDOT publicly announced the termination on May 17 without mentioning Frazier by name, stating only that “the employee failed to carry out his responsibility correctly,” and could possibly face criminal charges. The agency is currently reviewing Frazier-led inspections of at least nine other fracture-critical bridges elsewhere in the state.