Bad weather delayed the daredevil work of engineers who will rappel down the Washington Monument for a visual inspection, but tourists who ventured to the earthquake-damaged obelisk on Tuesday were nonetheless treated to a rare sight.
For several hours, engineer Dave Megerle was perched atop the 555-foot monument, setting up a rope system and other equipment that will allow the rappelling team to traverse the exterior of the monument looking for cracks, chips and other damage. To get there, he climbed through a hatch that hadn't been opened in 11 years.
The preparations took longer than expected, and by late afternoon, lightning in the area prompted the private engineering firm retained by the National Park Service to call it a day. The engineers are among a relatively small group in their profession certified to hoist themselves up and down the sides of buildings.
The monument sustained numerous cracks during a 5.8-magnitude quake that shook the nation's capital last month, and the site has been closed to visitors ever since. The engineering firm Wiss, Janey, Elstner Associates Inc., based in Northbrook, Ill., has spent the past month inspecting the interior of the obelisk, where pieces of stone and other debris rained down during the quake.
Weather permitting, WJE's team will begin slowly sliding down ropes Wednesday morning to look for additional damage on the exterior.
On Tuesday morning, Megerle emerged from a hatch just a few feet from the tip of the monument. He worked there for about 3 hours, then returned after a break and was briefly joined by another team member, Erik Sohn.
Laura Padier, 43, of Rockport, Texas, had seen news reports about the rappelling operation but was still surprised to catch a glimpse of Megerle.
"I was like, `Wow, there really is a guy up there on top!'" Padier said. "You don't expect that."
Part of Megerle's time atop the monument was spent constructing a barrier around its lightning rod system, said National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson. The system of gold-plated copper tubes begins at the top of the monument and stretches down the edges of the pyramidion, the uppermost portion of the structure.
Sohn told The Associated Press Monday that the job was a dream assignment among engineers with his skill set.
"This is definitely a job that everyone would like to get. We have a relatively small group that's certified to our level," said the 33-year-old from Chantilly, Va. "It's such an iconic structure. Everyone wants to be on a monument like this."
The team is being supervised by Brandon Latham, a ranger at Denali National Park in Alaska with extensive rappelling experience. He said Monday that working on the monument would be similar to rappelling down the face of a cliff.
The earthquake did not compromise the structural integrity of the monument, but surveillance video taken that day and released Monday by the park service shows it shaking violently. Daylight can be seen through some of the cracks, the largest of which is 4 feet long and about an inch wide.
The exterior inspection is expected to last about 5 days. Afterward, WJE will begin an emergency weatherization of the monument _ essentially filling the holes with caulk or similar substances.
Park service officials hope to establish a timetable for repairing and reopening the monument by mid-October.
On Tuesday, passers-by gazed at the monument more intently than usual. George Hoins, 56, of Leavenworth, Kansas, didn't arrive in time to see Megerle atop the obelisk but was impressed by the footage he saw on television.
"Whatever he gets paid, it's not enough," Hoins said.
Associated Press photographer Jacquelyn Martin contributed to this report.