After Earthquake, Washington Monument Still Closed

The Washington Monument was seriously damaged by an earthquake last summer that left hunks of stone lying around the base of obelisk. Months later, National Park Service officials are finalizing a plan for repairs, but the structure will remain closed for at least another year.

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The Washington Monument towers over the nation's capitol. You can see it from miles away. What you can't see is the inside of the Monument or the stunning view from its peak. It was damaged in a rare earthquake last August.

And as NPR's Teresa Tomassoni reports, efforts to fix the monument are moving carefully and slowly.

TERESA TOMASSONI, BYLINE: On a warm, breezy afternoon, Sean Kennealy and I stand at the base of the monument. We're looking up at its pointy peak, 555 feet in the air.

SEAN KENNEALY: This is the tallest structure in Washington, D.C. It's the largest freestanding masonry structure in the world.

TOMASSONI: Kenealy's with the National Park Service. He's in charge of overseeing the repair process, which he says is not an easy one.

KENNEALY: It is a very unique engineering challenge.

TOMASSONI: So nothing's been fixed yet, except for the elevator, which was only partially repaired. Philanthropist David Rubenstein has donated $7.5 million to help finish the repairs and federal funds will match that amount.

Next month, all repair plans will be finalized, but construction won't begin until fall. Kennealy says then it'll be at least another year and a half before the monument reopens.

KENNEALY: When I saw the damage out there, I felt horrible.

TOMASSONI: Kennealy was one of the first park rangers to check out the monument right after the earthquake. At first, he just saw chunks of mortar that had fallen onto the ground, but then he went inside and started climbing.

KENNEALY: By the time we got to the observation level, which is the 500 foot level, we noticed a tremendous amount of stone pieces and spalls and chunks that had fallen from the interior onto the ground.

TOMASSONI: Kennealy whips out his Blackberry to show me some pictures he took from inside that day. After flipping through a few, he points at one that looks pitch black except for a yellow lightning streaked shape.

KENNEALY: So you're looking at a crack in the pyramidion standing at the observation level, looking up, and you can clearly see daylight in a crack that's probably about two or three foot long.

TOMASSONI: Kennealy says moisture is still coming in through some of these areas. And, while the monument won't fall down, he says there are still safety concerns for visitors.

KAROLINE SZUDYBILL: Well, I would totally go up there right now.

TOMASSONI: That's 22 year old Karoline Szudybill.

SZUDYBILL: I'm not that scared by some possible happenings.

TOMASSONI: Szudybill is a college student visiting from Germany. She's been to the top of the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building and she wants to add the Washington Monument to the list.

SZUDYBILL: I think it's a very different view and angle perspective, so I would really love to see that, but maybe some other time.

TOMASSONI: Szudybill is one of many tourists still milling about the monument's base, even though it's closed. Some have no idea why it's closed and others, like 27-year-old Alex O'Brien, do, but still, he's disappointed.

ALEX O'BRIEN: It's kind of sad. Yeah. You just want to be, you know - take a look inside.

TOMASSONI: O'Brien's visiting from Boston, but he's originally from Belarus, Russia. This is his second trip to D.C. since becoming a U.S. citizen, so he says it would mean a lot to him just to get inside, even if he can't get all the way to the top.

O'BRIEN: I think they should at least open half of it so everyone will get a chance to see it.

TOMASSONI: But even that won't be happening anytime soon. Teresa Tomassoni, NPR News, Washington.

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