MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Audio recordings of 911 dispatchers are painting a clearer picture of just how concerned bridge inspection crews were after finding a crack in a steel beam in the Interstate 40 bridge crossing the Mississippi River between Arkansas and Tennessee.
In two recordings, crews from a team handling the inspections on behalf of the Arkansas Department of Transportation can be heard pleading with dispatchers to help them stop traffic to the Hernando DeSoto Bridge after the inspectors found the separation in the beam.
“I am doing a bridge inspection here on I-40 Mississippi River Bridge, and we just found a super critical finding that that needs traffic shut down in both directions on I-40 Mississippi River Bridge,” the inspector said on the call.
Dispatchers seemed taken aback by the request and unsure of what the crews were asking of them. The crew member went on to try and explain that they had already reached out to ARDOT about the issue before again telling dispatchers that the bridge needed to be cleared.
In a second call to 911, a different member of the inspection crew tried to clarify that they needed police to stop traffic to the bridge, a while trying to keep a strong signal with dispatchers.
During a news conference Wednesday, ARDOT Director Lorie Tudor said the steel beam that had the “significant fracture” was “crucial to the structural integrity” of the bridge.
“This fracture had the potential of becoming a catastrophic event that was prevented by our staff’s diligent effort in managing our bridge inspection program,” Tudor noted.
The bridge carries nearly 50,000 vehicles a day. According to TDOT, it was last inspected in 2019 and is inspected every two years. Right now they are in the process of analyzing whether or not it will be safe for their crews to go back out on bridge, for barge traffic to travel underneath it, and whether or not it will even hold its own weight.
“This is not common, the significance of this crack. We have cracks on bridges, we document them and they’re minor,” said Steve Frisbee, ARDOT Chief Engineer for Operations. “This one is pretty significant.”
There is currently no estimate on how long repairs to the bridge would take. The closure has not only re-routed traffic on I-40, but also blocked barge traffic on the Mississippi River under the bridge.
An economist says the Interstate 40 bridge shutdown in Memphis could have an impact that reaches far beyond the city. The slowdown could potentially lead to increased costs for every distributor and company in America.
“It’s a potential disaster,” said John Gnuschke, a retired economist formerly with University of Memphis. “There is going to be a delay in goods and services across the country, and it’s all going to be because of this bridge.”
Transportation companies like Memphis-based FedEx, which has its World Hub at the Memphis airport, the world’s busiest cargo airport, have to pivot.
The shipping company said in a statement: “FedEx is closely monitoring the situation with the Hernando de Soto Bridge closure, and we are implementing contingency plans to minimize any impact on service.”
The U.S. Coast Guard, which is responsible for the waterways under the I-40 bridge, says there is an impact on the river, too. They have closed the waterways a half a mile south of the bridge and a half a mile north.
Sixteen vessels and 229 barges sit waiting for things to open back up. The things they are transporting will be delayed getting to their destination.
Only one other bridge in Memphis, which carries Interstate 55, now connects Tennessee and Arkansas across the Mississippi River.
The bridge is so congested officials said it wasn’t a viable option for Arkansas ambulances trying to reach Regional Medical Center or Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, which are the main trauma units in the region.
“The likelihood of that ambulance and that patient being stuck in the back in a critical condition, it could be more of a jeopardy than a service,” said DeWayne Rose, the West Memphis Emergency Management Director.
Rose says critical patients like shooting victims will now be taken to Baptist Crittenden, then flown across the river by helicopter. He says his team is even working with the Memphis Fire Department to transport patients by boat if heavy rains or other conditions mean an air ambulance can’t fly.
Rose also says non-critical patients in rural parts of Crittenden County are being diverted to hospitals in Forrest City, Osceola and Jonesboro.
“We want to try to do our due diligence with these hospitals and not bombard one single one of them,” he said.
Arkansas and Tennessee split the cost for repairs and maintenance of the structure, with work on the bridge usually being handled by Tennessee Department of Transportation crews.
It was announced Wednesday that a national team was heading to the bridge to conduct another inspection.