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High-flying engineers set sights on National Cathedral

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Peering into the shadows of stone gargoyles and conquering 300-foot bell towers for a living is a job most people only dream about. But for the engineers tasked with inspecting the Washington National Cathedral, it's only the second-most thrilling job they've had in the past month.

The "difficult access team" from Illinois-based Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. engineering firm is in the Washington skyline again. After spending a week examining the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument, it now turns its attention to the historic church to look for potential unseen damage caused by the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook the city in August.

"So much of our work tends to be office buildings in Manhattan or Chicago," said Daniel Lemieux, a principal and unit manager for the engineering firm. For the four team members dangling from the top of a century-old cathedral he said, "This is a bit of an adrenaline rush."

No stranger to the death-defying, Fairfax resident Erik Sohn gained notoriety on the Washington Monument when he was blown from the west facade by a strong gust of wind.

The 33-year-old father is an architectural engineer for the cathedral inspection. Mr. Sohn said the towering monument was an experience, but he anticipated the cathedral's architecture would prove "more entertaining for us while we're up there."

"It's completely different," Mr. Sohn said. "The scale of such a large building [such as the Washington Monument], you don't have anything to look at. The cathedral is ornamental."

The Northwest landmark is well known for its Gothic architecture, including its flying buttresses and 300-foot central bell tower. Though exterior and interior assessments determined the cathedral is structurally sound, pieces of the heavy, decorative limestone were damaged during the quake, including a pinnacle on the southeast tower removed last week. Officials estimate total repairs for the church will cost at least $15 million.

The team is at the mercy of the weather after a disruptive forecast pushed the inspection to start one day early. But if all goes well, the climbers will spend two days rappelling each side of the 234-foot-tall western tower before making their way to the central bell tower.

Once the assessment is complete, cathedral officials can determine the next step to repair the structure before its anticipated reopening Nov. 12.

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