A Rush To Judgment Raises Questions About Bridge Inspections

Monty Frazier, 51, and wife Shelly Frazier, 49, pose at their Natural Dam, Ark., home. Monty Frazier is a former bridge inspector with the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT), who led the 2019 and 2021 inspections of the Hernando de Soto Bridge that connects Memphis, Tenn. to Arkansas over the Mississippi River. ArDOT officials fired Frazier after a contractor identified a crack in the bridge's tie girders. (Matt Stroud/Daily Memphian via AP)
Monty Frazier, 51, and wife Shelly Frazier, 49, pose at their Natural Dam, Ark., home. Monty Frazier is a former bridge inspector with the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT), who led the 2019 and 2021 inspections of the Hernando de Soto Bridge that connects Memphis, Tenn. to Arkansas over the Mississippi River. ArDOT officials fired Frazier after a contractor identified a crack in the bridge's tie girders. (Matt Stroud/Daily Memphian via AP)
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Monty Frazier was on leave when he received the phone call that ended his career.

It was May 11, and the 51-year-old father of three had taken the week off from his job as a heavy bridge inspector with ArDOT, the Arkansas Department of Transportation. He stayed home to care for Shelly, his wife of 29 years, who’d gone through a long-scheduled major surgery the day before.

Since the couple lived deep in the Ozark woods — in Natural Dam, an Arkansas community of fewer than 300 people near the Oklahoma state line — Frazier needed to be around to care for her, to make her meals, to take her to follow-up appointments.

He got a call from his assistant, Anthony Caudel, late in the afternoon.

“Hey Monty,” Frazier recalls Caudel saying. “Can you look at your computer real quick? We need to see where this location on the I-40 bridge is.”

Inside his gray modular home, a five-hour drive from the Hernando DeSoto Bridge that connects Memphis to Arkansas via I-40, Frazier got up from his kitchen table and grabbed his state-issued computer.

“What’s going on?” Frazier asked.

“Well, they found a major crack in the bridge,” Caudel told him.

Frazier paused, stunned. “Holy crap,” he said. “Is it bad?”

“Yeah,” Caudel said. “It’s bad.”

While the Tennessee and Arkansas transportation departments share responsibility for maintaining the DeSoto Bridge, ArDOT is responsible for inspecting it.

Somehow, teams of inspectors, going back years, failed to notice a major separation in the bridge’s steel tie girders. If those tie girders lost their integrity, the bridge would collapse, and any number of more than 47,000 drivers who cross the bridge every day could plummet more than 120 feet into the Mississippi River.

That crack’s discovery set off a chain of events that has placed virtually all of the blame for closing one of the most heavily trafficked bridges in the United States squarely on the shoulders of one man.

But did the state of Arkansas get the right man?

A Daily Memphian investigation into what happened after the crack was discovered revealed a troubling rush to judgment, evidence the crack has existed for at least seven years, and major questions about the procedures and thoroughness of the current bridge inspections.

The investigation included a review of thousands of pages of emails obtained in partnership with the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network (ANNN) through the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. Among the findings:

— There is photographic evidence, sent to ArDOT officials and discussed within the organization via email, that the crack has been visible since 2016. A newly discovered photo by a French tourist posted to Flickr appears to show the crack visible as early as October 2014. Many people besides Frazier missed or didn’t report the crack. None of them have been disciplined or fired.

— The contractor who reported the crack in May did not see it in 2019, despite it being visible in its drone footage at the time. The company has not lost its contract with the state and continues to inspect bridges.

— A review of thousands of pages of internal ArDOT emails shows Frazier’s boss, Mike Hill, acknowledged the blame for the failure to notice the crack should rest with him. He has not lost his job, or been disciplined.

— In an email responding to questions from The Daily Memphian and ANNN — and in a followup call with ArDOT’s director, Lorie Tudor — department officials claimed that Frazier’s firing rested on their finding that “Monty Frazier was the only inspector of the tie girder that was cracked between 2016 and 2020.” That assertion is contradicted by years of reports that show at least five separate ArDOT employees inspected the bridge during that time period.

Frazier is the only person to be terminated in connection with the bridge’s closure. He’s kept quiet since his firing on May 17. But now he’s ready to talk.

In exclusive interviews with The Daily Memphian, Frazier outlined how the inspection process works, and offered his perspective on how so many inspectors may have failed to notice such a glaring problem.

Frazier is contrite about the failure itself.

“Every day I think about it — what could have happened if we kept missing it,” Frazier said. “I have nightmares about it.”

But there are larger issues at play.

“This is a problem that’s way bigger than me,” he said. “And if they don’t take a good look at how we missed this, it’s gonna happen again.”

WHO IS MONTY FRAZIER?

After graduating high school in Cedarville, Arkansas, Frazier earned his first of dozens of welding certifications in 1989. He got married three years later and took jobs all over the country, wherever he could find work. Shelly followed.

In 1998, they moved back to Natural Dam and began raising their sons there. ArDOT hired Frazier as a mechanic in 2006. He was promoted to a welding position in 2008 and welded steel on bridges throughout the state.

A bridge inspector named Jeff Jones told Frazier about the inspection program, which intrigued him.

“It was something different,” Frazier said. “I’ve worked with steel pretty much my whole life, and I was looking for something bigger.”

For four years, Jones tutored Frazier, gave him literature about bridge inspections, answered any questions he had. (Jones did not respond to requests for comment.)

The State of Arkansas requires five years of bridge-related experience before someone can go through the inspection program, which involves attending a two-week training course, studying out of a Federal Highway Administration manual, and passing a test based on the coursework.

By 2012, with his four years as a bridge welder with the state, and one year of previous experience in Atlanta building bridge-length box culverts, Frazier took the course and passed the test.

He then began working as an assistant for Jones. He maintained the trucks and boats used for inspections. He organized photos and video. He sketched scale drawings of the bridges themselves, provided information for inspection reports.

Assistants are required to work for two years in that role before they can apply to be an inspector.

In 2015, Frazier applied for and got an inspector job out of Huntsville, Arkansas. In 2016, he joined the heavy bridge inspection team out of Little Rock.

He’d soon lead the DeSoto Bridge inspections.

ANATOMY OF A FAILURE

It’s not something many people think about — or even notice — but bridges are everywhere, connecting everything from pavement crossing tiny ravines, to huge concrete structures that cross interstate river systems. In Arkansas alone, there are 13,610 bridges, and each of them needs to be inspected regularly for wear and tear, and for potential collapse.

Like airplane crashes, bridge collapses are rare, but when they happen, it’s a catastrophe. Depending on the size of the bridge and the amount of traffic, the effects can be calamitous.

The DeSoto Bridge is the last bridge anyone wants to collapse.

Including all of its spans and ramps and approaches, it’s a structure that stretches well over three miles, and it sits high enough above the longest river in North America to allow for massive barges to easily pass underneath it.

The annual inspection process, overseen by ArDOT, can last as long as a month, and involves a team of about a dozen state employees who scrutinize the bridge’s superstructure and its highway for the slightest indications of damage. That’s in addition to a contractor, the publicly traded Michael Baker Corp., which examines the bridge with its own team every other year, rappelling and using drones to inspect the two arches that stretch about 90 feet above the bridge’s drivable surface area.

On May 11, in the midst of this year’s inspection, a Michael Baker worker checking the diagonals and vertical members of the bridge happened to see a crack and called 911 at 2:02 p.m.: “We need to get people off the bridge immediately!”

A program manager from Michael Baker, Alicia McConnell, emailed ArDOT officials the drone footage. ArDOT, along with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Memphis Police Department and others worked to stop traffic on the bridge.

That afternoon and into the late evening, ArDOT officials scrambled to make public statements, and to figure out how to secure the bridge for traffic again.

WHAT HAPPENED?

In the days that followed, ArDOT officials began trying to find out what happened — and who was at fault.

Initially, the investigation moved toward the idea that the bridge had been struck by something passing underneath it.

At 9:31 p.m. on May 11, Mike Hill, the lead engineer in charge of heavy bridge inspections for ArDOT, sent an email to his colleagues about the work ahead for the next day. They’d need an ultra clear image of the crack itself, and the steel structure underneath.

“We want a close-up of what ‘appears’ to be scuff marks on the bottom of the chord,” Hill wrote. “I wouldn’t tell anyone that it was struck from below but it happened to the Helena Bridge in the past” — referencing a span crossing the Mississippi about 80 miles downriver from Memphis — “so it is not impossible.”

Officials assumed that the crack emerged within the past year, so their investigation focused on the 2020 and 2021 inspections. Then, as the story spread to the public, old photos of the bridge emerged. Tudor, the department’s director, sent her staff an email at 11:58 a.m. on May 14.

“There is an image that is being circulated on social media of an image dated 2019 that shows evidence of damage in the same area of the fracture,” she wrote. “We have confirmed that the image is legitimate and we are investigating to see if that damage was noted in a September 2019 inspection report and if so, what actions were taken.”

Michael Baker employees looked back at old video inspections, finding that the crack had been visible in their drone footage as early as 2019. Though their contract with the state did not stipulate that their mandate extended to the bridge’s tie girders, they’d missed it, too.

If the crack presented a clear, present danger, that danger existed for at least 24 months before anyone noticed it.

PLACING BLAME

If any one person was to be blamed for the missed crack, it could have been Hill.

One staff engineer reports to Hill, and three statewide heavy bridge inspection teams report to the staff engineer. Each team consists of a lead bridge inspector and an assistant. Responsibility for their work ultimately fell to Hill.

“I understand you all may be getting some pressure to fire me,” he wrote in an email to Rex Vines, ArDOT’s deputy director and chief engineer, on May 16, at 3:18 p.m. “You don’t have to worry that I’m going to do something that hurts the (bridge inspection) Program even more on my way out. I want the Program to come back stronger from this experience and I want my team to succeed. Even if I’m no longer part of it.”

Less than two hours after Hill sent his email, Vines forwarded it to Tudor.

“I just wanted you to see this,” Vines wrote. “I think it speaks volumes of Mike’s heart.”

‘MR. FRAZIER DIDN’T SEEM DISTRESSED’

On May 14, Hill called Frazier and asked him to come into ArDOT’s Little Rock office, and Frazier made the 2.5-hour trek from Natural Dam. He didn’t sense that his job might be at risk. Frazier described a 10- to 15-minute conversation during which Hill asked him how inspections were conducted.

Hill conducted in-person interviews with five inspectors who participated in the 2019 and 2020 DeSoto inspections that day. He conducted another three over the phone and then requested written statements from each of them.

The next morning, Frazier emailed his statement to Hill outlining what he and his team had done during the inspections.

He described the process of using an industrial bridge inspection unit called an Aspen A-75. Sometimes called a “snooper truck,” it’s a gigantic, 80,000-pound vehicle with to a long, adjustable steel arm with multiple joints. At its tip is a basket that can hold 700 pounds.

To inspect the underside of a bridge, a team will park the Aspen on the deck, climb into the basket and maneuver the arm down over the side of the bridge and horizontally underneath it. The arm includes a boom that can swing in a wide semicircle under the bridge, allowing the inspectors in the basket to hunt for potential damage.

Inspecting the entire length of the DeSoto Bridge required multiple stops — the team would park the Aspen A-75 and deploy its arm beneath the bridge 12 times each on the westbound and eastbound sides, according to an ArDOT document compiled from the inspectors’ statements. In addition to scanning the underside of the structure with the Aspen, teams would walk the length of the bridge to eyeball potential damage from the deck.

While Frazier insists that he adhered to protocol, Hill said he did not. He also went further, though, claiming that he noticed something off about the way Frazier acted in his interview.

In a summary of the interviews and written statements presented to Vines and Tudor on May 16, Hill’s assessment was blistering.

“The people involved in the tied arch inspections were Monty Frazier (Both years), Andy Nanneman (2020 — side with the crack), and Anthony Caudel (2019 — the side away from the crack and 2020),” Hill wrote. “Both Mr. Nanneman and Mr. Caudel showed extreme distress at missing the crack. They both wanted to see what the crack looked like in 2019.

“Mr. Frazier didn’t seem distressed and didn’t ask to see the crack,” Hill continued. “He kept saying that there was no way to see the crack because it was too dangerous to go past the underside of the tie girder.”

In a separate summary, Nanneman also called Frazier out. “During the inspection I did mention to Monty that we were working through the bridge too fast and that we need to slow down on inspections.”

Less than four hours after Hill told his bosses on May 16 that he wouldn’t object to being fired, Tudor sent an all-staff email.

“The inspector responsible for inspecting the failed portion of the bridge admitted that he did not inspect the bridge properly,” it read. “He has been sent home on leave without pay pending termination.”

Hill wasn’t the focus of that email.

It was Frazier.

THE SCAPEGOAT?

On May 20, Hill sent an email to Deputy Director Rex Vines.

“Tried calling because I thought you would want to know,” he wrote. “The crew brought in Monty’s stuff today and we found a picture on his iPad of the bottom half of the tie girder at the location in question.”

The picture was significant because it showed exactly what Frazier saw when he inspected the bridge.

“No visible crack on the ‘bottom’ side,” Hill wrote.

Frazier believed he was following protocol, and that he looked where he was assigned to look. And when he got to the location of the crack following that procedure, there was no crack to be seen.

There’s a dilemma here, according to Frazier, which is seemingly made stronger considering the iPad image referenced by Hill. Frazier admits that he erred in missing the crack — in the sense that, if photographs on social media could show the crack existed, then there should have been some possible way for him and his inspection team to see it.

“I missed it,” he said. “There’s no denying that.”

At the same time, while Frazier believed that the Aspen A-75 put him in all the right places to inspect miles of bridge, it didn’t. So maybe, Frazier suggests, Arkansas’ protocols — which involve exclusively using the Aspen for close analysis of the tie girders — wasn’t enough.

If Michael Baker Corp.’s after-the-fact discovery of the crack with drone footage showed anything beyond the crack itself, it was that drones could see and access places that perhaps inspectors aboard the Aspen platform couldn’t. According to Frazier, 2021 is the first year that certain Arkansas bridge inspectors have begun training for drone certifications.

In an email to The Memphian, ArDOT’s public information officer, Dave Parker, said that “drones are an excellent redundancy to add to the inspection process,” but that “hands-on inspections are a federal requirement of the National Bridge Inspection Standard.” Drones will not, he said, “replace the value of a hands on inspection.”

In response to a specific question about Frazier’s termination, Parker said, “we have verified that Monty Frazier was the only inspector of the tie girder that was cracked between 2016 and 2020.” ArDOT’s director, Lorie Tudor, emphasized this point in a followup call on July 20.

This contention is contradicted by years of inspection reports provided to The Daily Memphian and ANNN. At least five inspectors are listed as having inspected the bridge during that time. Frazier is only one of them.

In Frazier’s view, the failing to identify the crack equates to a failure over time of many inspectors failing to notice it, going back years.

And there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting he’s right.

In the months since the bridge closed for repairs, multiple images have emerged online from amateur photographers that appear to show the same crack. One from Barry W. Moore, a retired program manager in the Shelby County Health Department, shows the crack visible to kayakers viewing the bridge from the Mississippi River as early as August 2016.

Another, taken by French tourist Philipe Suissa and dated Oct. 24, 2014, shows the same crack. Metadata analysis by The Daily Memphian confirmed the dates of both photos.

Frazier had been on staff at ArDOT since 2006, but didn’t participate in DeSoto inspections until 2016. The inspections have gone through multiple lead bridge inspectors — and dozens of inspectors — since 2014.

“If there are that many people who missed the crack over all that time,” Frazier said, “it’s a problem with the way we inspect the bridge, not just the one guy who happened to be on the paperwork the last time we missed it.”

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Benjamin Hardy, editor of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, and freelance researcher Nicole Gusmerotti contributed to this story. Freelance photographer Nate Boguszewski provided metadata analysis of bridge photos from 2014 and 2016.