Daredevil Illinois Engineers Rappel Damaged Washington Monument | NBC Chicago

Daredevil Illinois Engineers Rappel Damaged Washington Monument

555-foot obelisk damaged by Aug. 23 earthquake, Hurricane Irene



    (Published Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011)

    A Northbrook-based engineering firm is getting a chance to help fix history.

    Crews from Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. are heading up the visual inspection of the earthquake-damaged Washington Monument. But despite the dizzying heights to which their work takes them, employees described the work as pretty routine.

    "We’re problem solvers. We look for trouble in buildings and bridges and figure out how to fix it,"  said company President and CEO William Nugent.

    As employees watched a live video feed from the nation's capital, four of their colleagues --  architectural engineer Erik Sohn, civil engineer Emma Cardini, architect Daniel A. Gach and civil engineer Katie Francis -- were suspended high in the air, rappelling down the 555 foot stone obelisk looking for damage.

    "They may do some tapping. They certainly will be taking some close up photographs and then the documenting will really be what they relay verbally to folks on the ground who will record that," said Nugent.

    All told, the inspection process could run through mid-October. WJE will then make its recommendations to the National Park Service on how to repair the monument, which suffered some cracks during the quake, but no significant structural damage.

    The Park Service documented the condition of each stone between 1999 and 2000, when scaffolding went up around the Monument.  The climbers will carry iPads in order to check the conditions of the stone against the previous records.

    The team can conduct their survey during rain, but will come down if lightning or winds over 20 miles per hour threaten.

    The ropes for the climbers are anchored to a beam inside the monument.  The Park Service was careful to emphasize that no holes had been drilled into the exterior of the monument.

    Nugent said that despite the high interest in the project, the work itself is pretty routine, considering the 70,000 projects undertaken over the firm’s 55 years, such as work on Soldier Field and the New York Public Library.

    And yet looking at the bigger picture, Nugent treasures the opportunity to work on this national treasure.

    "We’re proud Americans and to get an opportunity to work on a structure like the WM, it’s just a tremendous honor… I think any one of us would have happily worked on this structure even without compensation, because the opportunity to work on the Washington Monument is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us," he said.

    The Aug. 23 quake had a magnitude of 5.8 and was centered near Mineral, Va., shaking cities up and down the East Coast. In addition to damaging the Washington Monument, the quake also caused significant damage to the Washington National Cathedral. 

    Days later, Hurricane Irene lashed the monument with strong winds and heavy rain. More cracks became apparent, and there was some interior flooding.