Engineers Survey Damage Of Washington Monument

The Park Service is undertaking a painstaking inspection of the Washington Monument to assess damage from the Aug. 23 earthquake that hit the area. The temblor opened up cracks in the 555-foot obelisk, and the Park Service says it will remain closed indefinitely while repairs are made. There are no serious structural problems, but concerns remain that debris could cause a safety hazard.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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The Washington Monument, here in the nation's capital, is attracting some real stares this week. Workers are clambering around on the 555-foot-tall obelisk, dangling from ropes. The monument sustained some serious damage in last month's East Coast earthquake. It's been closed indefinitely.

And as NPR's Larry Abramson tells us, the National Park Service has begun a stone-by-stone inspection of the outside.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Early this morning, a brave guy in a hard hat peeked out of a window at the tip of the monument, and climbed out. At the risk of stating the obvious, it's not something you see every day.

PAT CULVIN: Oh, he's clear up there - at the very top of that thing.

DIANA CULVIN: Oh, gosh.

PAT CULVIN: We couldn't believe that.

DIANA CULVIN: Wait 'til I tell the people at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ABRAMSON: Home is Forsythe, Illinois, for Diana and Pat Culvin(ph). They were part of a collection of tourists and shutterbugs who knew the best view today was from the ground. People just stood and stared skyward.

Two workers spent much of today affixing ropes to the top of the monument. Those ropes will secure colleagues who will descend the sides of the stone edifice and carefully inspect the facade. Here's Bill Line, spokesman for the Park Service.

BILL LINE: They're going to inspect every single stone. This is probably a four- to five-day process, assuming that weather cooperates with us. Certainly, if there's any lightning or thunderstorms in the area, we will stop this.

ABRAMSON: Soon after the earth stopped shaking on August 23rd, the Park Service realized this elegant pillar had suffered more than Washington's other buildings. The Park Service released a video showing the top-level observation deck shaking violently. Damage was especially severe up top. Engineers say the monument is structurally sound, but they have found major cracks that let water in during recent rains and hurricanes.

Spokesman Bill Line says that discovery led the Park Service to start this lengthy inspection. And this is only the beginning.

LINE: Then the Park Service would have to move into the stage of repairing what they've documented. After the repairs are completed, the Park Service then has to bring the engineering firm back, to recertify that the repairs are done to satisfaction, before we ever open to the public.

ABRAMSON: The Park Service turned to the engineering firm of Wiss, Janney and Elstner of Northbrook, Illinois, for the job. It is tough to write while you're hanging off the side of a sheer wall, so project manager Dan Lemieux says the climbers will work with spotters down below.

DAN LEMIEUX: The folks on the ground will have the survey that was done in 2000 - '99 and 2000 - as a reference. And they'll be working with those data sheets, and then listening and recording what our rappelers find on the monument.

Some said they felt queasy just thinking about being up so high. Schalyn Sohn(ph) and her two children watched her husband, Erik Sohn, work tethered to the stone. She says she's not nervous.

SCHALYN SOHN: Just be careful and take your time. We'll be waiting at the bottom.

ABRAMSON: With the monument inaccessible to most of us, it suddenly became more interesting than ever. Locals who scarcely give this thing a second thought came out with their cameras. Julie Stuehser(ph) drove the 40 miles from Stafford, Virginia, to get a shot of the man at end of the needle.

JULIE STUEHSER: That's a crazy, crazy picture. It's like an ant on the top of a popsicle stick that's been whittled off to a point.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ABRAMSON: The people clustered at the base spoke affectionately of this monument, and seemed touched by the way it is still being cared for 126 years after it was dedicated. For a moment, government spending didn't seem like such a nasty word - although local resident Maria Roc said when her young daughter heard about the project, she thought it was related to the budget crisis.

MARIA ROC: And she didn't realize it was related to safety and the earthquake. And she thought it was the government's idea to raise money and charge tourists to rappel out of the monument.

ABRAMSON: Maybe not such a bad idea. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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