WASHINGTON -- In what looked like a scene from an action movie, an elite team of professionals rappelled down the Washington Monument yesterday -- not to carry out a covert mission, but to look for damage done to the 555-foot marble obelisk by last month's earthquake.
As tourists squinted at the tiny figures, two men and two women climbed from a hatch and observation windows at the top of the monument and slowly began lowering themselves with ropes and harnesses down its pyramid-shaped cap, where a large, inch-wide crack was located and where they expected to find the most damage.
From the ground, their movements appeared methodical and deliberate, but it was still enough to make family members and gawkers nervous.
"It's kind of freaky. I'm terrified of heights. I'll bet everything looks all swirly up there," said Brandon Guy, 14, of Windsor, Calif.
Engineers said the 1884 landmark is structurally sound but they need to catalog every defect so they can determine how long it will take to repair it and reopen it to the public.
To carry that out, they called in a "difficult access team" of specialists certified in both architectural engineering and climbing. The team was supervised by a park ranger with extensive mountaineering experience in the Denali National Park in Alaska, home to North America's highest peak.
During the daredevil inspection, which is expected to last several days, the intrepid climbers will work their way up and down the sides of the entire monument, snap photos with a digital camera and tap the stones with a soft mallet, listening for indications of damage. They have masonry tools to remove loose stone or mortar. Each is also carrying a two-way radio and an iPad loaded with data from the 1999 restoration of the monument.
The team is part of a relatively small group that can do such precise work at dizzying heights. Still, more than one described it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The team also includes 32-year-old Emma Cardini, who has rappelled down columns on Panama's Bridge of the Americas, dangled from rope inside the Old South Church in Boston, and inspected the Gothic spires at the top of Chicago's Tribune Tower.