Damage check of Washington Monument starts

A team of engineers harnessed to ropes inspects the exterior of the Washington Monument on Wednesday for damage caused by last month’s earthquake. (Evan Vucci ~ Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- In what looked like a scene from a Hollywood action movie, an elite team of professionals rappelled down the Washington Monument on Wednesday -- not to carry out a covert mission but to inspect the damage done to the 555-foot marble obelisk by last month's earthquake.

As tourists squinted at the tiny figures, two men and two women climbed from a hatch and observation windows at the top of the monument and slowly began lowering themselves with ropes and harnesses down its pyramid-shaped cap, where a large, inch-wide crack was located and where they expected to find the most damage.

From the ground, their movements appeared methodical and deliberate, but it was still enough to make family members and gawkers nervous.

"It's kind of freaky. I'm terrified of heights. I'll bet everything looks all swirly up there," said Brandon Guy, 14, of Windsor, Calif.

Engineers said that the 1884 landmark is structurally sound but that they need to catalog every defect so they can determine how long it will take to repair it and reopen it to the public.

To carry that out, they called in a "difficult access team" of specialists certified in both architectural engineering and climbing. The team was supervised by a park ranger with extensive mountaineering experience in the Denali National Park in Alaska, home to North America's highest peak.

During the daredevil inspection, which is expected to last several days, the intrepid climbers will work their way up and down the sides of the entire monument, snap photos with a digital camera and tap the stones with a soft mallet, listening for indications of damage.

They have masonry tools to remove loose stone or mortar. Each is also carrying a two-way radio and an iPad loaded with data from the 1999 restoration of the monument.

National Park Service officials hope to announce a timetable by mid-October for repairing and reopening the monument. The inspection is being done by the engineering firm Wiss, Janey, Elstner Associates Inc. of Northbrook, Ill.

The monument sustained numerous cracks during the 5.8-magnitude quake that rocked the nation's capital last month, and it has been closed to visitors ever since.

Daylight can be seen through some of the cracks, the largest of which is 4 feet long and an inch wide. Inside the obelisk, pieces of stone and other debris rained down during the quake.

Around the National Mall, bystanders watched the climbing engineers intently.

Kristen Dudacek of St. Paul, Minn., said she came to watch two days in a row, jokingly describing herself as a "rappel groupie." But she added: "It's not something I would ever do."

"I'm impressed with their courage, agility, nerves," said Randy Walker of Lenoir, N.C. "I bet they get paid very well. I wouldn't find fault with that government check."