- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A four-member team of engineer-climbers began their dramatic inspection Wednesday afternoon of the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument, rappelling down the landmark’s exterior to find earthquake damage in an operation delayed a day by impending thunderstorms.

“The storm has gone through, so we made the decision to go up,” said National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson.

The team of two men and two women from the Illinois-based Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. engineering firm emerged from inside the monument at about noon from a metal hatch and observation-deck windows at the 500-foot level near the top.

Harnessing themselves to anchored ropes, they climbed to the tip of the monument, then made their way down the marble obelisk.

“You couldn’t pay me enough to do that,” said 26-year-old Mica Phillips of Asheville, N.C., as he watched from below on the Mall.

The monument has been closed indefinitely since a 5.8-magnitude earthquake hit the region Aug. 23. The quake created cracks in the monument’s massive stones, some as long as 4 feet and 1 inch wide.

About an hour into the operation Wednesday, the engineer-climbers were still above the deck, inspecting the pyramid-shaped top of the monument, called the “pyramidion.”

The crew is equipped with handheld cameras, iPads with information about an 1999 monument rehabilitation project, tools for removing loose stones and mortar, a soft mallet for sound testing, a debris bag and a digital recorder.

The skies across the District cleared at about midday. Still, officials were constantly monitoring the weather on a direct line with the National Weather Service, Ms. Johnson said.

The inspection was scheduled to begin Tuesday but was postponed because of the threat of storms.

The crew is expected to take several days to complete the inspection and will report its finding to the Park Service, which hopes to announce a timetable in mid-October for the repair and reopening of the monument.

Mary Fondren, 55, of Annapolis, decided to take a jog through the Mall because she said the Chesapeake Bay was too polluted with debris to use her personal watercraft.

As she shielded her eyes to catch a glimpse of the climbers, Ms. Fondren said she “would love to see their view.”

“It’s a good thing they’re fixing it,” she added.

The climbers can work in the rain but cannot stay on the monument during an electrical storm or in sustained winds of 25 mph or higher, officials said.

Park Service spokesman Bill Line said the climbing team and park rangers from Denali, Alaska, assisting with the project “have worked in rain and snow before,” but “the bottom line is we’re not going to risk or endanger a life here.”

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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