WASHINGTON — Emma Cardini never envisioned herself rappelling down the sides of buildings. She's a civil engineer, not a thrill-seeker.
But for a second straight day on Thursday, she was a high-wire celebrity and object of fascination for gawking tourists as she made her way up and down the east face of the Washington Monument to document earthquake damage.
Cardini, 32, is part of the four-person "difficult access team" using harnesses and ropes to traverse the exterior of the monument and test each individual stone. The 555-foot obelisk shook violently during a 5.8-magnitude earthquake Aug. 23.
For the most part, Cardini remains focused on the stone in front of her. Yet she can't help feeling awed by the setting.
"It's really cool to see the planes flying under you," she said Thursday morning before ascending the monument.
The quake opened numerous cracks both in the interior and exterior of the white marble monument. Stones, mortar and other materials rained down on tourists gathered on the observation deck at the time.
The monument remains structurally sound. But on Thursday, the inspection team revealed just how potentially hazardous the structure has become.
Dan Lemieux, a manager of the monument project, showed an Associated Press reporter one of two dictionary-sized chunks of marble from the top section of the monument that were loosened by the quake and pulled off by team members. The pieces weighed more than ten pounds each and were larger than what the team expected to remove from the structure, he said, noting that visitors would have been endangered if a chunk that big fell.
A temporary fence erected after the quake is keeping tourists far away from the base of the monument, which is closed indefinitely. The inspection is intended to document what needs to be fixed before it can reopen.
Cardini, who has degrees from Tufts University, said Thursday that she was introduced to rappelling six years ago, after she started working for Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. The Northbrook, Ill.-based firm is handling the monument inspection.
She was immediately hooked, excited by the opportunity to get so close to the wall of the building she was working on. A supervisor recommended her for the difficult access team, and she receives annual training from her company as well as with the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians. She recently completed a course for international certification.
It helps that she's never had a fear of heights. She can look down from the top of the monument without getting dizzy.
"There must be something wrong with my inner ear," Cardini said.
Cardini 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.
But the Melrose, Mass., resident said the monument job is the highlight of her career, calling it "an awesome experience."
The other members of the team are Erik Sohn, 33; Daniel Gach, 35; and Katie Francis, 27. All are engineers or architects. Each is assigned a specific side of the monument.
The inspection is expected to last several days, and the team may work through the weekend, National Park Service officials said.
The climbers are snapping photos with digital cameras and tapping the stones with soft mallets, listening for indications of damage. They are using tools to remove loose stone or mortar – including the heavy chunks Lemieux displayed Thursday.
They use radios to communicate their findings to colleagues on the ground, and they carry iPads loaded with data and drawings from the 1999 restoration of the monument. Any damage that wasn't there in 1999 was likely caused by the quake.
The obelisk was built between 1848 and 1884 and was the tallest man-made structure in the world before being eclipsed by the Eiffel Tower. Previous natural disasters did no notable damage, and Cardini said the monument remains an engineering marvel.
"For an engineer," she said, "it's like Disney World."
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