Engineering professor says more problems could be found during bridge repairs

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Arkansas Department of Transportation says its whole process of reviewing a bridge is now under review after one of its own engineers missed a break in the I-40 Bridge during two inspections.

The engineer has been fired, and traffic on the bridge remains closed to traffic indefinitely.

RELATED: Contractor to fix I-40 Bridge announced; employee who inspected bridge terminated

FOX13 learned the federal government has been asked to get involved in how bridges are inspected in Arkansas.

The Federal Highway Administration is being asked to help oversee and assess the state’s inspection program.

Arkansas officials say the process will be transparent as they try to regain the public’s trust in bridge inspection.

ARDOT says it will go back and review the inspection records and process for any bridge that was inspected by the engineer who was fired from his job after 15 years with the department.

PHOTOS: I-40 Bridge closed after crack discovered

State transportation officials also stress that the engineer’s supervisors will be questioned about how he missed the crack that turned into a fracture. Why didn’t he supplement his review with drone video that showed a crack in the bridge?

One professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Memphis told FOX13 ARDOT has to have a top-to-bottom review of the protocols.

“He is following a protocol. These inspections are very systematic. Very straightforward,” said Prof. Adel Abdelnaby.

FOX13 asked Abdelnaby whether people above the engineer should also be held responsible for him missing the damage.

“There has to be an investigation,” he said. “There has to be a clear investigation to what happened exactly.”

Here are the alternate routes to get you around the I-40 bridge closure

The professor knows what he is talking about because he is a former bridge inspector himself and said not finding that crack was negligence.

Last Wednesday, the chief engineer for TDOT said the crack was so obvious that even a rookie would have spotted it. In this case, it was a 15-year veteran of ARDOT who missed it. That inspector has been fired, and the department wants the FBI to investigate.

Prof. Abdelnaby also told FOX13 during the repairs, workers may find more problems.

He said because the crack existed undetected for two years, there may be other hidden damage to the bridge that will take time to repair once it’s discovered.

Abdelnaby said ARDOT and TDOT don’t have the option of closing half of the bridge and devising a scheme to accommodate both East and West-bound traffic.

“Trucks are traveling on one half as opposed to another. You are still imposing high forces on the bridge. You are still putting vibrations on the bridge that can trigger more cracks even after you strengthen this beam that was fractured,” Abdelnaby said.

The professor said ARDOT and TDOT should consider investing in sensors that can help alert them to damage the structure.

RELATED: CONFIRMED: 2019 video shows damage in fractured area of I-40 bridge, ARDOT says

Not only did ARDOT fire the 15-year engineer who failed to find a crack in the I-40 Bridge, they asked the FBI to investigate.

“We are in the process of referring the matter to the proper federal authorities for their determination if future investigation, criminal or otherwise is warranted,” said ARDOT Director Lorie Tudor.

Does that mean the FBI will file charges against the engineer? Law enforcement sources told FOX13 not necessarily.

At least two legal experts said it would be a stretch for the engineer to get charged with a crime but cautioned that the federal statute is broad.

The FBI takes on cases involving public corruption, criminal negligence, fraud, and criminal transportation over interstate commerce. It is possible that fraud could be filed against the engineer for falsifying reports on a project paid for with federal money.

RELATED: ‘We need to get people off the bridge immediately’: Hear the 911 call that brought traffic to a halt

FOX13 is working to find out if state routine inspections are paid for in full or in part with federal dollars.

Legal experts said they would be surprised if the engineer is charged, but that would depend on the prosecutor reviewing the case.

“But it is really a stretch for the government to start indicting its own employees for incompetence or being bad at their job,” said defense attorney Michael Working. “Having people in government who are bad at their jobs is pretty common. In fact, we re-elect them all the time.”

Working told FOX13 he talked to other defense lawyers who defend clients in federal court.

None of them can remember an employee fired for something like this ever being charged especially when no one was injured or lost their life.