Eyes turned up Tuesday as Washingtonians and tourists witnessed a sight never before seen: men inching along the tip of the Washington Monument, with only ropes to suspend them.
Two men emerged from an access hatch at the top of the 555-foot obelisk to start the up-close inspection of the damage wrought by last month's 5.8-magnitude earthquake. The men, part of a "difficult access team" from Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., secured ropes and constructed a barrier around the monument's lightning rod system in preparation for the daredevil engineering maneuvers now expected to start Wednesday: rappelling down the monument's side to report on cracks.
The weather could delay the project, as it did Tuesday, when the two engineers securing the roping were called off the monument about 3:30 p.m. by National Weather Service forecasters worried about lightning.
"Throughout its nearly 140 years, the monument has been struck by lighting many times and survived. But a human being isn't that lucky," said National Park Service spokesman Bill Line. "What is paramount is their safety."
Line said the park service won't set a timetable for the inspection because it wants to ensure the engineers complete the inspection without any accidents, no matter how long it takes. But he said he expected four engineers -- one on each side of the monument -- to be rappelling for the rest of the week.
And park service officials said they might announce a timetable for repairing and reopening the monument by mid-October.
A preliminary inspection of the monument completed earlier reported cracks and chips along the length of the monument's exterior, including a crack 1.25 inches wide on the pyramid point of the obelisk.
This week's inspection will be the first time in history anyone has ever rappelled down the monument's side. When workers went to fix up the monument's mortar 11 years ago, they used scaffolding.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.