Monty Frazier was on leave when he received the phone call that ended his career.
It was Tuesday, 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 that week to care for Shelly, his wife of 29 years, who’d gone through a long-scheduled major surgery the day before. Her doctor ordered she rest and not drive anywhere.
Since the couple lived deep in the Ozark woods — in Natural Dam, a community of fewer than 300 people, in the hills north of Fort Smith, Arkansas, 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.
That’s when 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. Caudel told him specific coordinates. Frazier looked it up.
“Eastern span. Panel point 22. Adjacent to pier B,” Frazier said. “Westbound.”
Caudel confirmed the location. “We got it. Thanks, Monty.”
“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 both the Tennessee Department of Transportation and ArDOT share responsibility for maintaining the DeSoto Bridge, ArDOT is responsible for inspecting it.
Somehow, teams of Arkansas bridge inspectors, going back years, failed to notice a major separation in the bridge’s steel tie girders. Those tie girders were considered to be “fracture critical” — meaning that if they lost their integrity, the bridge would collapse, and any number of more than 47,000 drivers who cross the DeSoto Bridge every day could plummet more than 120 feet into the Mississippi River.
It was, indeed, bad.
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 Daily Memphian 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, Lori Tudor — ArDOT 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.
Monty Frazier is the only person to be terminated in connection with the bridge’s closure.
“From our investigation we have determined that the same employee who conducted the inspection in both 2019 and 2020 failed to carry out his responsibilities correctly,” said Lori Tudor, ArDOT’s director, in a May 17 press conference. “This is unacceptable and this employee has been terminated as of this morning.”
Tudor even went on to say that she referred Frazier to the Federal Bureau of Investigation “for their determination if further investigation, criminal or otherwise, is warranted.”
More than two months have passed since Frazier’s firing, and he’s kept quiet. 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.
“Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody misses stuff,” Frazier said. “I missed it.” He went on: “Every day I think about it — what could have happened if we kept missing it. I have nightmares about it.”
But there are larger issues at play.
“It’s just amazing that (the crack) has been missed as much as it has,” Frazier went on. “You’ve seen how far back the crack goes. I wasn’t the only inspector there. Who was the inspector in 2014? 15? 16, 17, 18, 19, 20? Crack wasn’t found — why? That’s what I want to know.”
“This is a problem that’s way bigger than me,” he continued. “And if they don’t take a good look at how we missed this, it’s gonna happen again.”
Who is Monty Frazier?
Frazier is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, born in Miami, Oklahoma, just outside the reservation’s northeast boundary. After graduating high school in Cedarville, Arkansas, Frazier earned his first of dozens of welding certifications in 1989, and took whatever work he could. He built trusses for metal buildings — everything from airplane hangars to the structures that support farming silos. At night, after work, he’d hit the bars in Fort Smith, drinking Bud Light with his friends. One night in 1991, a woman named Shelly Lynn Beran got a dare from a friend to ask Frazier to dance. She did, and he said yes. Frazier and Shelly got married a year later, and have been together ever since.
Frazier took jobs all over the country, wherever he could find work. Shelly followed. They went to Anchorage, Alaska, and Tupelo, Mississippi. He welded for a gold mine, a boat manufacturer, a South Central Bell contractor, and a log home company. Built bridge-length box culverts for a company called Sooner Excavating in Atlanta as a welder.
“If it can be welded, I can weld it,” Frazier said. “I got more certifications than I know what to do with.”
As they traveled and explored, they had children — three boys, who are now 19, 24 and 28. In 1998, they moved back home — back to Natural Dam — and began raising their family there. It was a chance encounter that put Frazier in a position to work for the Arkansas Department of Transportation.
Shelly soon took a job as a receptionist at a company selling recreational vehicles in Fort Smith. One of their better customers liked Shelly and heard about Frazier — his skills, all his certifications, that he was a hard worker. He worked for ArDOT, and they were looking for mechanics and welders.
“He said, ‘Let me put you in touch with a friend of mine,’” Shelly recalled.
Frazier applied. ArDOT hired him as a mechanic in 2006. With his background in welding, ArDOT promoted him to a welding position in 2008; he welded steel on bridges throughout the state.
He worked hard, made friends. One friend in particular, an ArDOT bridge inspector named Jeff Jones, also lived in the Fort Smith area. Jones told him about the inspection program. (Jones did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Memphian.)
The inspection program intrigued Frazier.
“It was something different,” Frazier said. “I’ve worked with steel pretty much my whole life, and I was looking for something bigger — to be able to learn and inspect steel bridges. And money, too — there’s more money in bridge inspections than welding. So it was an upgrade.”
For four years, Jones tutored Frazier, gave him literature about bridge inspections, answered any questions he had. Jones was Frazier’s bridge inspection professor.
The State of Arkansas requires five years of bridge-related experience before someone can go through the bridge inspection program, which involves a two-week training course, studying out of the Federal Highway Administration’s Bridge Inspectors Reference 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 began working as an assistant for Jones in 2012. In that position, he provided basic help for the inspector. 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 a job as a bridge inspector out of Huntsville, Arkansas.
After a year in that position, he applied to join the heavy bridge inspection team out of Little Rock. In 2016, he took on a role as a heavy bridge inspector.
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.
That’s not something to take lightly. Like airplane crashes, bridge collapses are rare, but when they happen, it’s a catastrophe.
Forty-six people died when the Silver Bridge, connecting Point Pleasant, West Virginia, to Gallipolis, Ohio, collapsed in 1967.
Fourteen were killed when the I-40 bridge collapsed in 2002, southeast of Webbers Falls, Oklahoma — about an hour’s drive west of Frazier’s home in Natural Dam.
One-hundred-fourteen people died when the Hyatt Regency walkway, in Kansas City, Missouri, collapsed in 1981.
Depending on the size of the bridge and the amount of traffic, the effects can be calamitous.
The Hernando DeSoto Bridge is the last bridge anyone wants to collapse.
Named after the 16th century Spanish explorer credited as being the first European to document crossing the Mississippi River, it’s been open to drivers for nearly 50 years. Until its closure on May 11, it saw an average of more than 47,000 vehicles — about the population of Collierville — cross it on six lanes of traffic every day. Data from the Tennessee Department of Transportation indicates the daily number of drivers has gone as high as a daily average of 55,630.
The DeSoto Bridge is a mainstay, a bulwark — a monolithic fixture that connects Memphis to the rest of the continent. And because it’s such an important and integral part of the region’s commerce, it’s easy to forget what an architectural marvel it actually is. 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. Put a 10-story building on one of those barges, and it wouldn’t hit the bridge’s tie girders.
Which is to say that it’s a big, important bridge. And it takes a lot of people and effort to make sure it’s safe. The annual inspection process, overseen by the Arkansas Department of Transportation, 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 team of Michael Baker contractors made what is now an infamous discovery: A little before 2 p.m., a worker inspecting 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.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, May 11, and into the late evening, ArDOT officials scrambled to make public statements, and to figure out how to secure the bridge for traffic again.
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. No one knew about the Helena strike until the deck (started) sagging.”
Joe A. Sartini, an ArDOT maintenance engineer, responded about an hour later, agreeing with Hill, but stressing that both the crack and the scuff marks looked old.
“It looks cut somehow and it looks like it has been that way for a while,” he wrote.
Initially, 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, director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation, sent an email at 11:58 a.m. on May 14 to the ArDOT staff.
“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 in the DeSoto Bridge presented a clear, present danger, that danger existed for at least 24 months before anyone noticed it.
If any one person was to be blamed for the missed crack, it could have been Mike Hill.
Like any governmental organization, there’s a structure at ArDOT — a hierarchy.
Lori Tudor runs the operation as director.
Rex Vines is the deputy director, and also ArDOT’s chief engineer.
Under Tudor and Vines is Joe Sartini, who directs ArDOT’s maintenance division.
Under Sartini, within the maintenance division, there are two segments devoted to bridge inspections — one for small bridges, and one for major, heavily trafficked bridges like DeSoto.
Mike Hill is the engineer in charge of the latter; he’s ArDOT’s Bridge Maintenance Engineer.
One staff engineer reports to Mike 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.
Hill understood this.
“I understand you all may be getting some pressure to fire me,” Hill wrote in an email to Rex Vines on Sunday, 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.
“These people are dear to me,” Hill went on. “I can help you all better if I’m part of the conversations. I understand you all will do what you think is best for the Department. Just as I will do what is best for my Inspection Program and team. Even if it is not mine.”
Less than two hours after Hill sent his email, Vines forwarded it to Lori 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’
In the days following the crack’s discovery, Frazier’s communications with his bosses at ArDOT were limited. He’d been on leave, and, as he explained it, his bosses and everyone he worked with tended to respect when employees were off the clock.
“When you’re on sick or annual leave, that’s your time,” Frazier said. “They pretty much leave you alone.”
Frazier kept in touch with his assistant, Anthony Caudel, periodically, via text, to see how the investigation was going. Everyone else at ArDOT left him alone. Frazier didn’t see the silence as unusual or troubling — or indicative that he might be fired. (Caudel did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Memphian.)
That Friday, May 14, Mike Hill called Frazier just after lunch and asked him to come into ArDOT’s Little Rock office, and Frazier made the 2.5-hour trek from Natural Dam. Even then, Frazier 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.
“To me it just seemed like Mike trying to see how they could improve inspections in the future,” Frazier recalled. “He was trying to figure out how they could make sure this doesn’t happen again. At least that’s what I thought.”
Hill conducted in-person interviews with five inspectors who participated in the 2019 and 2020 DeSoto inspections that Friday. He conducted another three over the phone and then requested written statements from each of them.
The next day, Saturday, May 15, at 8:43 a.m., Frazier emailed his statement to Hill outlining what he and his team had done during the inspections.
“When performing the inspection, we go down every 3 cable,” he wrote. “This allows us to see both sides of the farthest floor beam away from us. Then we extend the boom to its full length and rotate under the structure, (once) we have rotated as far as we can go, we retract the aspen boom and rotate back the other way moving up and down getting close to the stringer and floor beam connections as far as the machine will allow.”
What Frazier was describing was 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 of the bridge, 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. (Here’s a video of a similar truck in action.)
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. He said if you took the basket outside of the tie girder to move along the outside, the A-75 was unstable. He also said that he once moved it out there, and one of the tires lifted off the ground. He operated the A-75 in 2019 and 2020.”
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.”
On the evening of Sunday, May 16 — less than four hours after Mike Hill told his bosses that he wouldn’t object to being fired — Lori Tudor sent an all-staff email labeled “Today’s developments in green font.”
“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.”
Mike Hill wasn’t the focus of that email.
It was Monty Frazier. Hill called him and asked him for his work computer and other materials. Frazier offered to deliver the materials to Jeff Jones — the same bridge inspector who trained him for his job.
Frazier may have been “on leave without pay,” but not really.
He was out of work.
The blame for the DeSoto crack would fall to him.
On May 20, a little after 5 p.m., Mike Hill sent an email to Deputy Director Rex Vines, cc-ing his boss, Joe Sartini.
“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, the Aspen A-75 is a cumbersome machine — a humongous steel appendage designed to put inspectors within arm’s reach of treacherous locations that need to be meticulously analyzed. While Frazier believed that the machine 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 with the Federal Aviation Administration for drone certifications. Perhaps combining drone footage analysis with analysis aboard the Aspen could avoid similar failures in the future.
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.”
None of that explained Hill’s interpretation of Frazier’s interview.
In an interview with The Daily Memphian, Frazier directly contradicted Hill’s report, and said he even called Hill afterwards on the phone to see where he got the idea that “there was no way to see the crack because it was too dangerous,” or that Frazier wasn’t distressed about the crack. Frazier said he never told Hill that “one of the tires lifted off the ground.”
“I flat out never said that,” Frazier said. “And of course I was distressed — that’s why I texted my assistant (Anthony Caudel) every day I was on leave.”
Hill never responded to the question, Frazier said. During the short, awkward call, Hill cut it short. “I’m sorry,” he said, before hanging up. Frazier hasn’t heard from him since.
To clarify the reasons for Frazier’s firing, The Daily Memphian and Arkansas Nonprofit News Network relayed a series of questions to ArDOT’s public information officer, Dave Parker. In response to a specific question about Frazier’s termination, Parker responded that, “we have verified that Monty Frazier was the only inspector of the tie girder that was cracked between 2016 and 2020.” In a followup call on the evening of July 20, ArDOT’s Director, Lori Tudor, emphasized this point: “Monty Frazier was the only inspector who looked at that particular tie girder.”
This contention is contradicted by years of inspection reports provided to The Daily Memphian and ANNN. The ArDOT inspection reports include a description of each structural element of the bridge, identified by number. The tie girders on the DeSoto Bridge correspond to element #107, “Steel Open Girder/Beam.” At least five inspectors are listed as having inspected the bridge during that time. Monty Frazier is only one of them.
In Frazier’s view, the failing to identify the DeSoto 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. Metadata analysis by The Daily Memphian confirmed the date of Moore’s photo.
“I went back to look at those pictures,” Moore said. “First thing I did was call my brother. I said, ‘Look at this.’ We were just speechless there for a moment. We knew this could be big.”
Another photo shows the same crack in an image dated Oct. 24, 2014. The photo is from a French tourist, Philipe Suissa, who traveled to Memphis for two days in October 2014, during a road trip from New Orleans to Chicago. “We had a boat trip and I took the photo,” he said in an email to The Daily Memphian. Metadata analysis by The Daily Memphian confirmed the date of Suissa’s photo.
Frazier has been on staff at ArDOT since 2006, but didn’t participate in DeSoto inspections until 2016. DeSoto Bridge 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.”
Sitting at his kitchen table in Natural Dam on July 5, Frazier looked over at an uneaten box of a dozen donuts sitting near him on the table.
“We all missed the crack — all of us at ArDOT,” he said. “And we missed it for years.
“But it’s like them donuts there,” he went on. “If you eat the whole box, can you tell me which one of them is gonna make you fat? You can’t because it’s not one donut. It’s all of them. And it’s all the donuts you been eatin’ over years and years.
“You can’t blame it on just one.”
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.