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From 500 feet, a new view of Washington Monument

Friday - 6/7/2013, 6:37am  ET

AP: 89eb9b4b-003c-42b1-bead-593a47b7ebfd
The shadow of the Washington Monument and surrounding scaffolding is seen from the 231-foot level looking toward the World War II Memorial and Lincoln Memorial, Sunday, June 2, 2013 in Washington. The monument has been closed since the 2011 earthquake and half of the needed repairs have been funded by a $7.5 million donation from philanthropist David Rubenstein. The Associated Press had a look at some of the worst damage and the preparations underway to begin making repairs. Stone by stone, engineers are reviewing cracks, missing pieces and broken mortar now that huge scaffolding has been built around the towering symbol of the nation's capital. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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BRETT ZONGKER
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Most birds don't fly high enough to see the top of the Washington Monument, though that didn't stop a group of government officials and philanthropists from clipping themselves into harnesses and climbing to the tip to see the obelisk's cracked stones.

Some gashes in the monument are deep, while other stones had their corners chipped off in a 2011 earthquake that closed the monument. Some stones have hairline cracks. Others are missing mortar between stones because it broke apart due to the strongest vibrations near the top. At least one massive stone shifted a thumb's length out of line with the stone below it during the quake.

The Associated Press had a look at some of the worst damage 500 feet above the ground and the preparations underway to begin making repairs.

Stone by stone, engineers are reviewing cracks, missing pieces and broken mortar now that huge scaffolding has been built around the towering symbol of the nation's capital. Once each trouble spot is identified, repairs can begin.

Businessman David Rubenstein, who gave $7.5 million to fund half the repairs on the 555-foot-tall monument, climbed to the top recently and said he prayed the ground wouldn't shake. At times, he held on tight to scaffolding rails. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell joined in reviewing the damage and gave Rubenstein a high-five at the top.

Jewell, in her second month as part of President Barack Obama's cabinet after stepping down as CEO of retailer Recreational Equipment Inc., climbed the scaffolding's stairwell while others rode an elevator. After examining the structure, she said the monument has withstood the test of time.

"You can't help but think, how did they do this?" Jewell said "How did they carve these stones so precisely that many years ago that it's really just sitting on a friction fit one on top of the other all the way to the top? It's extraordinary."

When the obelisk was completed in 1884, some 35 years after construction began, it was the world's tallest structure for five years until the Eiffel Tower was built in Paris. The monument remains the world's tallest freestanding stone structure and stands to honor the nation's first president.

The marble exterior has a distinct line marking the time when builders ran out of money and halted construction for 25 years during the Civil War era, later resuming work in 1876. The monument normally draws about 700,000 visitors a year but has been closed to tourists since the earthquake.

Rubenstein helped jumpstart repairs in a unique arrangement by donating millions early last year to cover half the cost. Congress allocated $7.5 million to cover the other half of the restoration. Delaying the repairs would have caused the monument to deteriorate and cost more to restore, Rubenstein said.

Jewell said the national parks belong to all Americans and must be maintained with taxpayer support, though private philanthropy makes a difference. Rubenstein said he hopes his gift could be an example for others.

Visiting the top, Rubenstein was amazed by the view and the monument's history.

"You see how beautiful it is, and the majesty of our city is really unrivaled," he said. "The top of the Eiffel Tower is nice, but not quite this beautiful."

The climbing group spent several hours on the monument June 2, walking around and examining the stone at several levels. Engineers explained how repairs will be completed from the top down.

Some stones shaken loose by the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Aug. 23, 2011, along the East Coast were removed to prevent them from falling to the ground. Other damaged pieces have been cut out with clean lines to allow for a new rectangular block of marble to be sealed into place.

The worst of the damage is from about 470 feet upward, where the monument shook most violently, said James Perry, the chief of resource management for the National Mall.

The most difficult part of the repair was gaining access to the exterior. A month after the quake, engineers rappelled from the top to get a first look at the damage. It took nearly 20 more months to plan and build scaffolding, completed May 15, to allow work to begin.

"The assessment is literally stone by stone," Perry said. "Every stone is catalogued and has a condition assessment."

There are 9,040 exterior-facing stones and 10,746 interior stones altogether, according to the National Park Service.

Engineers are looking to verify damage and develop a process for repairs that must be reviewed and approved before the stonework begins. There are essentially three types of repairs to be made: repointing damaged mortar, replacing stone pieces and sealing cracks. Metal tubing used to absorb lightning strikes also is being replaced.

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