By Molly O'Toole
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A team of engineers is set to rappel down the Washington Monument on Tuesday -- in what officials said was thought to be a first -- to assess damage from a rare earthquake and wet weather that struck the eastern area of the United States this summer.
The 555-foot-plus high obelisk has been closed to the public since the August 23 quake.
"It's structurally sound and not going anywhere," said Bob Vogel, Superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, standing below the monument Monday.
The monument, finished in 1884, sustained cracks more than an inch wide during the 5.8 magnitude quake in August, exposing it to both sky and weather, with significant amounts of water from Hurricane Irene and summer storms entering and causing damage, according to the National Park Service.
Engineers will rappel on all four faces of the monument starting early on Tuesday from two ropes each, anchored from a safety hatch near the top of the monument.
The top level of the monument sustained the most damage during the quake, as small stone pieces and mortar fell from the interior and exterior.
Surveillance videos the NPS has posted show violent shaking and visitors running down the stairs from the top as small pieces of debris rain down. No one was hurt.
Katie Francis, 27, will be one of the four climbers with a "Difficult Access Team" of the engineering firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc., which is conducting the inspection.
Francis said in her job interview at the firm she was asked if she would like to rappel down a building.
"I said, 'Wow, you do that? Please hire me!'" she said.
"The quake, nobody likes that it happened, but I feel privileged to be on the team," Francis continued.
Captain Kathleen Harasek, Commander of the Central District for the United States Park Police, said they will be on alert.
"We know it's going to be a curiosity," she said. "We tend to try and keep people off the outside of the monument, so it's kind of contrary to what we normally try and do."
The NPS anticipates the assessment will conclude in mid-October.
"The Washington Monument is a national treasure," said Vogel. "We want to get this right."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)