- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2011

The National Park Service says it has no time frame for reopening the Washington Monument, which has been closed to the public since cracks appeared after a 5.8-magnitude earthquake struck the area Aug. 23.

“The good news is, the monument is structurally sound. It’s not going anywhere,” said Bob Vogel, superintendent for the Mall, on Monday. But when asked for a date the popular 555-foot tourist attraction would reopen, he said, “Unfortunately, we can’t answer that question.”

The Park Service on Monday also released three videos taken during the earthquake at the monument´s 500-foot observation level. The videos show the monument shaking noticeably as debris falls from above and people scramble for stairwells.

Engineers combed the interior of the 126-year-old monument after the quake and found pieces of mortar and rock, and aerial photographs showed a 4-foot-long crack at its top.

Interior damage estimates have been completed, officials said, and a five-day exterior assessment is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

The park service on Monday also released three videos taken during the earthquake at the monument’s 500-foot observation level. The videos show the monument shaking noticeably, as debris falls from above and people scramble for stairwells.

The work so far has cost about $207,000, and the Park Service is expecting additional costs, Mr. Vogel said.

The exterior assessment will be led by a “difficult ascent team” from Northbrook, Ill.-based Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., an architecture and engineering firm that specializes in complicated construction projects.

Dave Megerle, the safety officer for the ascent team, said four climbers will scramble across the face of the monument to check firsthand for cracks. He said the process will not result in additional damage.

“It will be like a mosquito on your back,” he said.

Despite the damage, Park Service officials stood by their assessment that the monument could have fared much worse if not for a $5 million restoration it underwent in 1998.

During that project, older mortar was removed from the exterior of the building, some of it hardened to the point that it resembled concrete, said Stephen Lorenzetti, the Park Service’s deputy superintendent for planning.

Putting on softer mortar allowed for more flexibility in the monument’s structure, Mr. Lorenzetti said, adding that “it has to have a little give; otherwise, we would have had a bigger problem.”

Mr. Vogel said the missing mortar created some holes where “daylight is visible.” He also said there was a substantial amount of water inside the stairwells, thanks to a torrent of rain brought by Hurricane Irene a week after the quake.

The monument will need to be temporarily patched in some way before the colder and more inclement weather moves in.

Officials hope to analyze the assessment in the coming weeks. The Park Service will also consider whether the monument could be reopened while the work is done, Mr. Lorenzetti said.

At ground level, beyond a fence that was put up at a 100-foot-radius around the towering structure to protect passers-by from possible falling debris, Belgian tourist Davy Paulus took photographs with his wife.

Like many tourists, he said he knew the monument would be closed, but that didn’t prevent the couple from stopping by during their visit to the city.

“It’s not something you want to miss out on,” he said.