- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2011

An engineering firm tasked with rappelling down the Washington Monument to inspect the structure for earthquake damage postponed its 555-foot descent Tuesday because of looming thunderstorms.

The Northbrook, Ill.-based Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. engineering firm canceled the descent around 3:45 p.m., the Associated Press reported, but not before the crew placed a barrier around the lightning-rod system that spans the peak of the monument.

The firm’s safety officer for the “difficult-access team,” Dave Megerle, emerged from a metal hatch near the top of the obelisk around 9:45 a.m. and began draping it in colorful ropes so four fellow climbers could dangle safely while they worked.

The spectacle Tuesday morning unfolded amid low-hanging clouds that blanketed the 126-year-old monument and high above curious onlookers, double-parked satellite news vans and media videographers live-streaming the event.

“It’s a sad thing that it’s not open, but it’s a blessing the damage is not as serious,” said Debra Whitby, a College Park resident who said she went to the top of the monument many years ago. “The question now is how long it will be closed, and will it be the same.”

The damage, including a crack 4-feet long and 1-inch wide, was caused by a 5.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked the region Aug. 23 and closed the monument indefinitely.

The National Park Service has been evaluating the monument and reports the monument is structurally sound, though rain pooled inside the stairwell during Hurricane Irene. The engineering firm was hired by the Park Service and will report its findings to the agency.

On Monday, the agency released video footage from its 500-foot-high observation deck that showed clouds of falling debris and panicked visitors running down the stairwell as the quake shook the monument.

Bob Vogel, superintendent for the National Mall, said more than $200,000 has already been spent on assessments and that he anticipates additional costs once the full assessment is made.

He said holes created by falling mortar must be patched before the colder, rainier weather arrives.

The Parks Service is not losing revenue owing to the monument’s closure because there is no charge for admission.

As he pondered a rope dangling the height of the monument, Hungarian Tamas Hegedus, a resident of Budapest, said he was more disappointed that the sun had refused to shine during his business trip to the area than he was at not being able to get inside the monument.

“Looking out from the Old Post Office Building was always enough for me,” he said.