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Washington Monument inspection underway

Five engineer climbers will take four more days to meticulously photograph every marble block as they look for damage caused by the August earthquake.

September 29, 2011|By Alexa Vaughn, Washington Bureau
  • An engineer is photographed as he inspects the Washington Monument, which has been closed since Aug. 23.
An engineer is photographed as he inspects the Washington Monument, which… (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters )

Reporting from 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 magnitude 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 with monument photos taken during its $10-million renovation in 1999. National Park Service rangers said they wouldn't know until mid-October when repairs could 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. Just the day before, a thunderstorm splashed more water into the monument.

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 with 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 1,000 meters across," Kito said. Latham has also led several successful rescue missions for climbers who tried to scale 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, the tallest peak in the United States.

The climbing engineers are members of the "Difficult Access Team" for Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., an engineering firm based in Northbrook, Ill. The group has scaled other landmarks such as the former Sears Tower, Tribune Tower, Alcatraz penitentiary and the New York Public Library.

Widely shared images of Megerle working for three hours on anchors Tuesday brought more sightseers to the monument Wednesday. Dan Truckenbrod, a Navy commander at the Pentagon, broke from work to jog around the monument.

"I came to see the crazies [climbers], you know, take pictures, say I was here," Truckenbrod said. "Hopefully, it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Many stuck at work watched the climbers from nearby office and museum buildings and posted pictures on social networking sites.

Tourists squinting up at the sun-soaked obelisk considered the rare sight a welcome consolation during the landmark's closure, Pam O'Hare and her husband, Bob, of Ackley, Iowa, among them.

"We probably would've waited in line to go up if it was open," she said. "But to get pictures this unique to put on our screen saver at home is not something everyone gets to do — especially not out in Iowa."

alexa.vaughn@latimes.com

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