Like a broken tooth being pulled from an infected jaw, a craggy, two-ton chunk of a pinnacle was hoisted from the Washington National Cathedral on Thursday morning, nearly two months after an earthquake rocked the building from its foundation.
The work began shortly after 9 a.m., when a crane hooked to the southeastern pinnacle lifted the stonework into the air.
When the quake hit on Aug. 23, the top three layers of the pinnacle stayed intact as one unstable piece, posing a threat to the facade of the English Gothic cathedral and anyone or anything below.
“A gothic cathedral is probably the worst thing to be involved in an earthquake,” said Joe Alonso, the cathedral’s head stone mason. “Luckily the majority of the damage was to the slender pinnacles at the top.”
The crane operator worked quickly and smoothly, taking less than 10 minutes to swing the piece around the building and gently set it down on South Road 330 feet below.
The heavy stone looked diminutive in comparison to the hulking structure looming out of the fog behind it.
Alonso’s team was on the site to prepare at 5:30 a.m. Heavy rain and flashes of lightning threatened to derail their plans.
But the rain let up just long enough for the removal to be completed.
“I’ll take rain over wind any day,” Alonso said.
With this chunk removed, stone masons will tackle the removal of eight smaller loose pieces — each weighing 800 pounds — at the same site.
This was the third of the central tower’s four pinnacles from which pieces were removed this month. Pieces from the fourth pinnacle, the northwestern one, are scheduled to be removed Friday morning.
A total of about 45 pieces will be removed from the central tower’s four pinnacles. An additional 160 loose pieces also need to be removed from the tower itself.
Alonso said the repairs will take at least 10 years, and the total cost of the work is unknown. Initial repairs will cost an estimated $15 million.
Once the towers are stabilized, the fences surrounding the building, which has been closed since the quake, will be moved in and scaffolding will be set up.
Rappellers who inspected the Washington monument for quake damage last month will be on site next week to examine the cathedral’s west facade.
The cathedral is scheduled to reopen Nov. 12.
After stabilizing the cathedral, Alonso said they will begin repairs. Limestone will be brought in from Indiana, and modern technology will reinforce the stonework against future earthquakes and other disasters.
“Were going to have to learn from what happened here,” he said.
The pinnacles of the central tower were erected in 1963 and dedicated in 1964. Alonso found coins from 1963 in the mortar, presumably placed there by the original stone mason. He plans to put them back where he found them.
“To see this happen, for me personally, is sad,” said Alonso when asked how he feels about the challenge of putting the cathedral back together. Alonso said he has been the cathedral’s stone mason for the last 26 years.
“I never thought I’d be reconstructing this building. It is sad.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.