September 29, 2011 in Nation/World

Team on D.C. monument checks for quake damage

Alexa Vaughn Tribune Washington bureau
Associated Press photo

Dan Gach, left, Erik Shon, center, and Emma Cardini inspect the exterior of the Washington Monument for damage caused by last month’s earthquake on Wednesday in Washington.
(Full-size photo)

The climbers

The five climbing engineers examining the Washington Monument are members of the “Difficult Access Team” for Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc., an engineering company based in Northbrook, Ill. The group has scaled other landmarks such as the Sears Tower, Tribune Tower, Alcatraz Penitentiary and the New York Public Library.

WASHINGTON – Dangling by a rope more than 500 feet above ground, Dave Megerle settled his rock-climbing shoes into the white wall and went to work looking for cracks in the world’s tallest all-stone structure. He’s been scaling facades for more than 25 years, though none quite like the Washington Monument.

Megerle is one of five engineers who rappelled down the Washington Monument’s four marble sides Wednesday to inspect damage caused by a 5.8 earthquake that shook the East Coast and closed the landmark on Aug. 23.

Climbers will take four more days to slowly photograph and video-record every marble block so the images can be compared to monument photos taken during its $10 million renovation in 1999. National Park Service rangers said they won’t know until mid-October when repairs can be made and the monument reopened.

This is the first close look engineers have had of the obelisk’s exterior cracks, which make the monument’s interior vulnerable to water damage despite efforts to plug cracks from within.

After hauling 600 pounds of equipment up a broken elevator still functioning safely at its slowest speed, Megerle popped out into the mist through a south-side hatch on the 555-foot monument’s tip. He spent three hours lassoing rainbow-colored nylon slings around the top, which anchored ropes to attachments inside the monument windows.

Supervising Megerle and the other climbers – Dan Gach, Emma Cardini, Erik Sohn and Katie Francis – from within the monument via radio was National Park Service Ranger Brandon Latham, who is taking a break from Denali National Park’s rescue team. Gordy Kito, a National Mall Park Service ranger who also used to work on the Denali rescue team, said coordinating the scaling of the Washington Monument’s smooth marble walls is simple compared to what Latham is used to doing.

“He’s not only climbed and rappelled down desert (rock) towers, but he’s strung rope between towers sometimes a thousand meters across,” Kito said. Latham has also led several successful rescue missions for climbers who tried to scale 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in the United States.

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