The Day the Washington Monument Couldn’t Stand Still: An Oral History of the 2011 Earthquake
After spending the greater part of the last eight years closed to the public, the Washington Monument finally reopened in September of 2019. In that time, the iconic obelisk has undergone a subtle transformation, including the modernization of the elevator and a new visitor’s entrance. But it all began on August 23, 2011, when one of the largest earthquakes to rock the East Coast in recent history took place. This is the story of that day—and the weeks that followed—told by the people who helped ensure that the Monument could still stand tall.
Part I: The Quake
Jennifer Talken-Spaulding (former cultural resources and program manager, National Mall & Memorial Parks, National Park Service): It was August 23rd, and I was sitting in my office. Our office for the National Mall & Memorial Parks headquarters is down on Hains Point, below the Tidal Basin [a National Treasure]. All of a sudden we feel shaking, and it was very strong. We frequently have a lot of helicopters fly over our office, so when the building and windows started to shake, my initial reaction was, “Dang, they’re flying low!”
Niki Williams (former National Park Service ranger, from interview with Today): It was very frightening. You see from the video that I almost instantly look at the camera that’s filming me, and that’s because the metal apparatus for the elevator began to zing and shake, and then the building was the next thing to shake. You have people crying out and screaming.
[The first thought I had was] it was some sort of attack. I didn’t know what. But I figured whatever was happening the best place for us to be was not at the top, it was at the bottom of the Monument. So that was my next move, to get out of there, whatever was going on.
Talken-Spaulding: The elevator had just loaded a group of people and was on its way down. It had literally just gotten to the base of the Monument and opened to let the people out when the earthquake started.
Williams (from Today interview): We were fortunate. Of the 20 people that were up there, [most] of them were able to rush down the stairs. When I assisted [an elderly woman] down, it took us about 10 minutes [to reach the ground]. It was about two minutes into the whole ordeal when finally it comes across my radio that it was an earthquake. It was not an attack. And I was able to comfort myself and the woman I was assisting.
Talken-Spaulding: All of us that were in the office kind of braced, and when the shaking was done we went outside. Everybody was very quickly in the parking lot of the headquarters. I'll always remember our natural resource specialist all of a sudden looking over the tree line, because you can see the Monument from headquarters. She turned around and said, “Well, it’s still standing.” It was such a weird thought—that it wouldn’t have been standing. I looked at the chief of maintenance, Sean Kennealy, and said, “We gotta go.”
Part II: First Response
Talken-Spaulding: When we pulled up to the Monument, everybody was already out of the building. The Park Police were there and they were moving people off the hill. We were walking up the path from the ranger station to the Monument and a lieutenant from Park Police came down and met us. We asked what was going on. There was a lot of debris around the base, chips and spalls from the exterior mortar joints that failed, but everybody was safe. That’s the first and most important thing we wanted to hear.
It was our deputy superintendent, Stephen Lorenzetti, who went up to the top and took a quick look around. We really just wanted to make sure everything was safe and stable before even the staff went inside. Then we all together moved to the [Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial to check them]. It wasn’t until the next day that we all went in the Monument together.
We had our quick response with our internal NPS group first, then we started to work with [architecture and engineering firm] WJE. We were making calls [the day of the earthquake]. On the 24th everyone was traveling, and on the 25th we were there at 7 o’clock.
David Megerle (senior member of the Difficult Access Team [DAT] at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates [WJE]): Our team from our San Francisco office is the one that got the call because they are the seismic experts in our company.
Kent Sasaki (unit manager, WJE, San Francisco office): We look at earthquake damage, and we do evaluations of existing buildings for earthquake performance. That’s a big part of what we do.
Andrew Bishop (senior associate, WJE, San Francisco office): Kent Sasaki was the unit manager at the time, and I sat outside his office. I was a brand-new hire. We heard about the earthquake essentially as soon as it happened, and we got the call to do a Rapid Response Evaluation and look at several buildings across the National Mall.
Sasaki: We got on a plane and met the NPS people early that day. They sat down and briefed us and told us what they needed. There were other buildings they wanted us to evaluate, including the Lincoln Memorial, but it was the Monument they had the most concern with because it was obviously damaged at the top.
Our team got to the base of the Monument and they told us the elevator was closed. We had to walk with all our gear up the 555 feet to the top.
Megerle: I remember we had to hike up the stairs because the elevator was shut down. They hadn’t had a chance to [fully] inspect it and see how much damage there was.
Sasaki: It was pretty amazing because we were getting to go in places that most people don’t get to go. There’s this series of steel stairs that go around the perimeter of the Monument all the way up. It’s fascinating, they have these cool state seals at each of the different levels.
When we made it to the top, we could see daylight through some of the cracks in the stones.
Talken-Spaulding: We saw daylight coming through and it just stopped us in the stairway. We knew there was some significant damage, because you don’t see daylight in the middle of the stairway when you’re still below the visitor levels. Even now, just looking at the photos seven years later, I remember that feeling of anxiety.
Sasaki: It was quickly clear to us that we would need our ropes team in order to access the very top. That’s when I called Dave.
Megerle: I was working on the Minnesota State Capitol at the time.
Sasaki: We evaluated the distress and looked at the cracking. We tried to figure out if there was much movement or expansion of the Monument itself. Having looked at it for two days, our team collectively concluded that while it was damaged, the Monument was stable. We gathered in front of the NPS people and told them that, to their relief.
I told them that what really needs to be done is a survey of the exterior of the Monument to identify earthquake damage, and that’s where Dave’s team came in.
Megerle: My background is as a rock climber. I had a window cleaning business with a lot of my friends who were rock climbers. We used ropes to access high-rise buildings in Denver and clean the windows, back in the late 70s and early 80s.
We were definitely on a short list, but we kind of knew we were going to be up there. So we started formulating a plan. We arrived the next day. There was one major crack on the west elevation [of the pyramidion]. I would say you could stick your hand through it, it was that big.
Talken-Spaulding: After the earthquake, Hurricane Irene was coming in just a couple of days. I think people sort of forget that. We had open cracks in the building, a hurricane was coming, and we were trying to figure out what we could do to quickly patch up those cracks so we don’t get additional damage. We just weren’t sure what the effect would be.
Sasaki: We consulted with our waterproofing folks and the easiest way to do it was to go to Home Depot and get these foam rods, fill the cracks, and caulk the hell out of it. The day after Dave got there, all of us had to walk boxes and boxes of caulk and caulk guns up the stairs.
Megerle: We installed some waterproofing material on the inside, some backer rod in from the inside into the cracks. It’s nothing structural—it’s a temporary fix to keep the water from coming in. It was a very rainy season and there were some more storms headed toward the area.
Sasaki: That was probably six to eight hours’ worth of work. I remember us being dead tired walking out of the Monument after we had done all of that, just before the hurricane was supposed to bear down on D.C.
Talken-Spaulding: After the hurricane passed, I remember going back up again and seeing water running down the stairs and standing in puddles on the visitor levels. It just breaks your heart all over again. But we did a lot, and I think it really helped. There could’ve been a lot more water on the inside than there was.
Part III: Time to Climb
Megerle: It took a couple weeks for [the DAT] to mobilize. The seismic people inspected as much as they could from the inside, then they started doing some computer modeling. But we were in the preparation stages for the project. We had architectural drawings and structural drawings, so we had a good grasp on what we were going to do.
Bishop: [Kent Sasaki’s team] came back and had a giant pile of photos to sort through. My first task was taking all of their photos and arranging them in a 3-D model.
When the actual evaluation and repair project came through, I built off that same 3-D model so we could see where the damage corresponded. If we saw a small crack on the interior and a crack on the exterior, we could tell if those lined up. Even if it looked like a small crack, if it had correspondence inside and outside, it likely went all the way through that panel. There were nine panels that had cracks all the way through, and hundreds of other cracks that got documented.
Talken-Spaulding: The exterior survey by WJE was conducted between September 23 and October 5 in 2011. So there was a period of time [after the earthquake] where we were able to bring them on board, make sure we were all safe on the inside, and give them the information they needed. We had [information from] exterior survey work that had been done on the monument in 1999.
Bishop: As I built the 3D model I was digging through a lot of the original drawings. Just seeing the linework of the folks that originally built it helped me think about what our role would be, and how it would be viewed years from now.
Talken-Spaulding: In between this time we also had to make temporary repairs to the elevator. There was really no way to do the type of work we needed to do without using the elevator to move equipment up and down.
Megerle: Our job was to inspect every stone, so we needed to get four individual engineers on each elevation. We knew there was a hatch [on the south side of the monument]. It’s not very big—just enough for one person to climb out of. The hatch was our main access point to establish our anchors at the top of the pyramid. We wanted to drape slings over the top of the monument and attach our ropes to that, using the structure as a natural anchor.
Sasaki: It was essentially a big rope necklace around the top of the monument. That was holding [the four rappelers] up.
Talken-Spaulding: It was a weird feeling getting out of the elevator and seeing climbing gear everywhere. It’s not really what you expect.
Megerle: The first task was to protect a very elaborate lightning protection system on the monument. There were four half-inch-diameter lightning rods at the top that went down each edge of the pyramid, and they were attached to lightning protection cables that went all the way to the ground. I had to install some two-by-four cribbing on the edges of the pyramid that would prevent our slings, once they were under tension, from disrupting the cables. Once we got that installed, we started the inspection process.
Talken-Spaulding: The reason that [WJE] came to the top when were looking was that the DAT had a lot of experience in areas like bridges—other things that were high and difficult to rope up with. They did a great job.
Megerle: It’s not a technically challenging building to rig. We were just using the structure as our anchor. It worked really well.
Talken-Spaulding: That team had a double priority. One was to remove the stones that were loose, and another was to do a survey of where the damage was so we plan the needed repairs, which would be a more long-term process.
Megerle: Our job was to inspect every stone, so we needed to get four individual engineers on each elevation. Masonry buildings are finicky. Not everything shows up in a photograph.
Most of the damage was at the top of the pyramid. From the shaft [the damage] was only 50 or so feet down. So the top of the monument rumbled around a little bit but the shaft did very well.
Talken-Spaulding: If you think of a whip cracking, the part that you’re holding is more stable than the end. [Likewise], the base of the monument is much more stable, but as the seismic activity gets transmitted all the way up, the top just kind of snaps a little. That’s where we saw most of the damage.
Megerle: The wind was definitely a factor on that project. Just because of the height of the building, and it’s featureless so there’s nothing really to hold onto. Most facades have elements of the building that you can hold onto. But the monument is very smooth.
Sasaki: They were trying to track wind speed, and if it got above a certain speed they were supposed to come in. But obviously things can change pretty rapidly. It’s not like they can get off the Monument all that quickly when you’re 300 feet down. One of our guys got blown sideways pretty far.
Megerle: Sometimes when we work on masonry buildings we can put in pieces into the mortar joints to hold us in and give us intermittent stabilization. But on this particular project we didn’t want to leave any marks or traces. We wanted to be extremely respectful to the monument.
Talken-Spaulding: Working in that park always means a lot of media interest. [That time] was pretty intense because it was so specific and a totally unusual situation. Nobody had ever thought about an earthquake in D.C. until it happened.
Bishop: Every sheet of the [repair] drawing set has a “Drawn By” block. So if you’re drawing that sheet, even if you’re not the engineer in charge, you get to have your name on that sheet. I was told that the whole drawing set got printed on Mylar and sent to the Library of Congress. So I feel like this was my one and only opportunity to get my name into the Library of Congress.
I was absolutely stunned [that I got to work on the Monument]. But what was needed was someone with bandwidth—that could drop everything they were doing and just pay attention to this job, all day, every day. Everyone else had been with the company long enough that they had all these existing commitments, and wonderfully I had very few.
Sasaki: It’s a great story about the rallying to the challenge of evaluating, safeguarding one of the most important monuments in the United States. Really, a once-in-a-lifetime project.
Megerle: It was very high profile and it was an honor to have been able to work on it. One of the highlights of my career, for sure.Talken-Spaulding: I still have a soft spot in my heart—I think I always will—for that monument. I spent seven years working at the National Mall and I did a lot of interesting things when I was there. But that was a very intense and unique experience.
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