For some, the chunk of marble that fell from the facade of the Supreme Court yesterday was a frightening safety hazard.
But this is Washington, after all, where people search for hidden meaning in anything that happens at places such as the nation's highest court. And so, some couldn't help but note that the tumbling piece chipped at a carved marble figure that represents "Authority."
It was the punch line of the day inside the Beltway.
"I think God is smiting the GOP," wrote a blogger on a political Web site, using the online handle "OhMy."
On another political blog, a writer who calls himself "Christian Soldier" shot back: "It's because God wants Alito on the Court. You guys don't know how to read portents."
Although "Authority" was damaged, there will be no need to restore "Order," its neighboring figure. Or "Liberty Enthroned," which also survived the accident.
At the foot of the Supreme Court steps, where engineers were photographing the remains of the Vermont marble pieces and carefully loading them into crates, one onlooker nudged a friend: "Notice how it happened on the right side. Not the left. The right."
The events unfolded at 9:30 a.m., about a half-hour before the court was to convene. The piece of marble -- about the size of a medicine ball -- fell from the building's west pediment, and much of it smashed into smithereens near the steps below. No one was injured.
The pediment includes 30 blocks of dentil molding that arc over nine muscular and serious sculptures that represent "Order," "Liberty Enthroned" and "Authority" along with past justices, a senator and other luminaries.
When one of the dentil blocks fell, chipping into "Authority" and dinging the "Equal Justice Under Law" inscription, some tourists were marveling at the grand building while others stood in line to attend the morning's oral arguments.
"No one was on the steps when it fell," said Lawrence Lippmann, a tourist from Napa, Calif. "A group of about 50 people had just gone inside. . . . It was a very strange thing, a curiosity to see something like this happen. A little unnerving," he said, holding his 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, close by.
Sarah was still jittery after the crack and thud of the marble. She pointed to a squirrel scampering up the steps and told her father: "That squirrel is going to get hit by the building!"
The entrance beneath the damaged area was closed to the public, and court-watchers and tourists were led inside through side entrances. The Supreme Court went on as usual, court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said.
It was unclear how much the broken piece weighed; marble typically weighs about 160 pounds per cubic foot. Officials said they were attempting to determine what caused the chunk to fall.
"As recently as two years ago, a contractor surveyed that pediment," said Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol, the agency that cares for the 1935 court building. "We still don't know why this happened."
The court is undergoing a $122 million renovation that includes an underground annex, a new security perimeter and electricity and plumbing upgrades. Arberg said it does not appear that the construction had anything to do with yesterday's incident.
After the pieces shattered into about four dozen shards, some of the schoolchildren nearby tried to grab the bits as souvenirs. They were stopped by police.
But Lippmann was craftier -- and a little more subtle. He slipped a piece into his pocket, even though his wife often lectures the kids against such actions.
"I've got a piece of the Berlin Wall at home," he said, out of earshot of the kids. "This is another piece for the collection."
Staff writer Charles Lane contributed to this report.