3 INVESTIGATES: Driver reported falling 'chunks of concrete' three days before interstate bridge collapse that injured man
Records show an East Ridge woman called authorities three days before the April 1 bridge collapse on I-75 to report debris falling from the bridge.
According to the call, obtained by Channel 3, the woman reported seeing what she described as “big, huge, chunk of concrete” fall from the Interstate 75 South Bridge and land on the section of Interstate 24 West below the overpass.
The woman first attempted to reach TDOT. After reaching the department’s automatic answering service, she called the police.
“Concrete is falling out from underneath the overpass,” the female caller told the dispatcher, who stayed on the phone with her for about two minutes gathering details.
Radio traffic reveals the dispatcher immediately shared details of the call with a dispatcher inside the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
“There are apparently pieces of concrete falling from the underside of the overpass,” the police dispatcher relays. The TDOT dispatcher ends the call by saying that someone would check it out.
TDOT email records, obtained by Channel 3, show the TDOT dispatcher incorrectly logged the location of the report.
"I apologize, my note says 24E instead of 24W," the TDOT dispatcher wrote in a report, dated April 3, 2019, two days after the bridge collapse.
A spokesperson for TDOT points to dispatch records that show a HELP Supervisor looked at all the bridges at the interchange immediately after the 911 call came in, despite the reporting error.
“If there was something that warranted further investigation then we would have closed (the bridge),” said Flynn, who spoke to Channel 3 on camera.
Flynn says engineers, who did not respond to the scene that day, do not believe concrete fell from the bridge. They believe the woman who called 911 saw falling grout.
“Bridge engineers believe it was some grout that is in between concrete slabs that had just fallen,” Flynn explained. “When it hit the road it just broke apart.”
Flynn says it is normal for grout to fall from a bridge.
“Things deteriorate, structures get age on them, sometimes we do have little bits and pieces of concrete that do fall down and most of the time it’s not of any concern,” said Flynn.
Channel 3 took Flynn’s explanation to the woman who called 911. She describes what she saw as being two-feet long. She says it hit the center-line of the interstate and broke into pieces. She also claims when she drove under the bridge the next day with a family member, they both observed debris in the roadway.
Flynn says their HELP Supervisor could not find that debris, which is why TDOT did not close or inspect the bridge three days prior to the collapse. She says TDOT followed its protocol by sending a supervisor to look at the bridge and the woman who called took the right step in calling the police to report her concerns.
Three days after the woman’s call to police, the concrete barrier of the bridge collapsed on the interstate below, causing a crash that left a Chattanooga man with significant injuries.
Hours after the crash, two TDOT employees participated in a press conference to reassure the public.
“The bridge is safe,” stated Joe Deering, Assistant Chief Engineer for TDOT.
“There was no structural problem with the bridge,” said Steve Hutchings, Regional Bridge Manager for TDOT.
“It’s an older bridge that had normal problems that an older bridge would have, but there was nothing structurally wrong with it. There was no reason for us to suspect anything like this would happen. Everything was in good condition.”
Hours after that press conference, the husband of the woman who called to report the falling debris emailed Joe Deering about his wife’s call.
“Thankfully, it did not land on any vehicles and thankfully traffic was not moving at a normal speed limit pace at this moment,” he told Deering.
He goes on to say that after hearing about the bridge collapse, his wife called the East Ridge Police Department to see if the dispatcher she spoke to reported her concerns to TDOT.
“The East Ridge Police Department did have a record of her calling and of them contacting TDOT,” he writes. Channel 3 confirmed those records exist.
It's not clear if Deering had received the email prior to TDOT holding a press conference that same day to announce the collapse was the result of an "oversized load" striking the bridge.
The next day, April 3, Deering responded to the email.
“Thank you for contacting TDOT with your information concerning the beam collapse on the I-75 Southbound Bridge,” he writes. As we reported at our news conference, we are in the initial phase of our investigation. This information is very helpful and will be included as we proceed with our investigation. If you or your wife recall any other details of what you witnessed, please contact me…Again, thank you for your email and support of this investigation.”
Deering then shared the email with other TDOT leaders, saying "we do not have a recording of the call from 911 concerning the concrete falling." According to Flynn, TDOT had still not heard the 911 call at the time this story was published.
“The more the facts of this bridge collapse play out, the more concerned we become,” said Harold North, the attorney representing the driver injured by the bridge collapse.
“Had TDOT properly and timely responded to the motorist’s call by conducting an appropriate inspection of this overpass, this horrible incident could have been avoided. Unfortunately, these errors by TDOT jeopardized the lives of the thousands of motorists passing under that overpass, resulting in extensive, life-altering injuries suffered by our client.”
TDOT maintains its opinion, based on forensic evidence found at the collapse site, that an “oversized load” hit the bridge, causing the collapse.
“An oversized load struck the bridge at some point in time, Flynn said. “We do not know when.”
Flynn says TDOT has received a few tips about who that driver could be, but nothing has panned out. The department is relying on the Tennessee Highway Patrol to follow any tips.
“As TDOT, we take care of the roads and bridges,” said Flynn. “We are partners with the THP and we work very closely with them. I can’t speak for what they are going, but I do know they have helped follow up on tips we have gotten.”
"THP, CPD & TDOT had received tips shortly after the collapse of the bridge," confirmed Lt. John Harmon, spokesperson for the Tennessee Highway Patrol. "THP continues to follow up on tips received in this active and ongoing investigation. Anyone with information regarding this incident is asked to contact THP, CPD or TDOT."