Washington Monument’s earthquake inspection is a dream job for engineer

September 29, 2011

Up where Emma Cardini has been this week, sea gulls fly by, the morning mist appears to drift so near it seems touchable and the jets landing at the airport glide in below her.

Up there, near the top of the Washington Monument, the elegant, miniature city spreads out far below: the green of the Mall, the cream-colored Capitol and all the bustle of the town.

It’s a sublime sight, she says, rich in the sense of the past and the present.

But her attention must be focused on the massive marble structure whose surface she is there to inspect.

Cardini, 32, of Melrose, Mass., a civil and structural engineer with the firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, is a member of the team using mountain-climbing equipment to examine the monument’s exterior for damage from the Aug. 23 earthquake.

The work has captivated Washington this week, as passersby and the media have fixed their gazes and cameras on the tiny figures crawling around the obelisk’s tip.

It’s all part of the job, Cardini says, working 550 feet above the city on one of the country’s most hallowed structures. A bird’s-eye video from her perspective at the monument’s side, made public Wednesday by the National Park Service, shows the sheer majesty and hair-raising potential danger of her perch.

Clad in sunglasses, a white hard hat, a red jacket and heavy work gloves, Cardini is seen harnessed, roped and fastened to the marble, as composed as if she’s conducting the most routine of tasks.

Behind her, though, is a dizzying view of the Mall, lined by its museums and office buildings, with RFK Stadium off in the hazy distance.

“It’s a little unsettling,” she said of seeing the video later. “But that’s okay.” She had been eager to get out on “the wall,” as she called it.

The external inspection began this week and is expected to run for several days.

The monument has been closed since the earthquake struck and will remain closed until the full extent of the damage is known.

Cardini said she asked to be assigned to the east face of the four-sided monument to avoid being sunburned.

“I was so excited,” she said. “I was waiting and waiting. It was awesome. You get out there and you’re like, ‘Hi, Washington Monument.’ And then you look everywhere. . . . The city is just awesome.

“We’d been dying to get out there,” she said, laughing that she had not realized that the east side was where all the media were stationed below.

She said that once she had climbed outside the opening in the marble “pyramidion” at the top of the monument for the first time, on Wednesday, it took a moment to adjust.

“When you first get out there, you need to get your bearings,” she said Thursday. “You need to make sure you know your north from your south, and everything’s clear. So you look around. You get comfortable.”

She reflected on seeing planes flying so near: “That is an unnerving experience — when you look over at the airport, and they’re under you.”

The experience is “just cool,” she said as she stood in long-sleeved dark blue polo shirt and tan work pants with her hair pulled into a stubby ponytail. “When I look one way, I see the Jefferson Memorial. When I look another way, it’s pretty cool.”

At the same time, she said, her true focus is on the monument exterior: “The only thing I’m looking at is the stone in front of me.”

During the Thursday inspection, she and colleague Dan Gach removed several softball-sized hunks of cracked marble from weakened areas of the monument exterior, as well as smaller bits of stone and mortar.

Their supervisor, Daniel J. Lemieux, said that, from the clean look of the cracks, the damage was most likely caused by the earthquake. It was “nothing that we didn’t expect,” he said.

They plan to be back up Friday.

Cardini said she has no fear of heights and does not get vertigo. “There must be something wrong with my inner ear, because I’ve never had it,” she said. “I look down. It doesn’t make any difference.”

“But you also have to have an appreciation for heights,” she said. “It’s good to have a fear of heights because you have to appreciate where you’re at. . . . You always want to know what the risk is. So I have to . . . remind myself of that, because I don’t have a natural instinct.”

“You know what can happen,” she said.

She hates ladders, she said, because she is not “tied into something.”

From above it, Cardini said, she gets a sense of the history of Washington.

“It’s a beautiful area,” she said. “[French architect Pierre] L’Enfant’s plan of the city is just awesome.”

And the mass of the monument itself is “incredible,” she said. “For an engineer, it’s Disney World.”

She said she has already identified damage from the 5.8-magnitude earthquake.

And the elements aloft can be harsh. She wears the gloves to protect her hands from rope burns and scuffs from the stone, although marble is smoother than, say, abrasive limestone.

All in all, however, it is a great assignment, Cardini said. When her supervisors proposed the project to her and her colleagues, she said, they weren’t met with much ambivalence.

“We were all like, ‘Yes!’ ”

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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