WASHINGTON — Erik Sohn, 33, said people usually didn't line up to watch him work as he and colleagues moved up and down, examining the outside walls of big buildings.
"They think we're window washers, and they just walk on and they don't really stare at us," he said. "So this is a new experience."
Then again, usually the buildings aren't quite this big.
Sohn, of Fairfax, Va., has been entertaining gawkers on the National Mall since Wednesday, one of four engineers and architects on a daredevil "difficult-access team" that's rappelling the 555-foot Washington Monument to check for small cracks caused by the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the region Aug. 23.
It may be the coolest job in all of Washington, at least in the eyes of Sohn's 3-year-old son, Schaffer, who got to watch his dad for four hours on Thursday.
"He keeps referring to Spiderman," Sohn said.
All four team members met with the news media for the first time early Friday morning before beginning their shift, trying to adjust to their newfound celebrity.
"So what does it feel like? ... Do you ever get drawn to the historical significance?" one television reporter asked, noting that more people have walked on the moon than have rappelled on the monument.
"I don't know about the historical connections, but that is an interesting fact there that you mentioned," responded Katie Francis, 27, of Chicago, adding that it's "truly an honor to be out there."
The team members, all employees of the earthquake-specialty firm of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. of Northbrook, Ill., have had to deal with some distractions and challenges, too.
Emma Cardini, 32, of Melrose, Mass., said she'd received a text message from her real estate agent regarding her condo.
"She said, `You have an offer, Can we talk?' '' Cardini said. "And I wrote back and said, `No, I'm on top of the Washington Monument and about to rappel, I'll have to talk to you later.' ''
Cardini said she'd never had a better view of the city: "You know, I like D.C., but I've never been quite as impressed with it."
Sohn, who called the job "awe-inspiring," said a big challenge had been the acrobatics required to get out of the small windows atop the monument to begin his daily work.
"It's a tight squeeze as you get out there with all the ropes and all the weight behind you and everything else," he said. "So it's just trying not to make a fool out of yourself as you slide out in front of all the cameras and the people watching you."
Francis said she hadn't been afraid, even though "you know in your head that you should be afraid." She said she'd been amazed by the "overwhelming quantity" of spectators, even though she'd been too busy to pay much attention.
"We end up spending so much time at that height that it starts to become almost a normal sight," Francis said. "Your focus is on what's immediately in front of you, and not all these overall concepts of, `Oh, wow, I'm on the Washington Monument. Look at all these people down below.' But you know, you take a break every now and then and you do notice, and then you take a deep breath and you go back to work."
The fourth member of the team, 35-year-old Daniel Gach of Littleton, Colo., said the team had discovered no major surprises so far as it looked for cracks and loose pieces of masonry. He said the team members were using rubber mallets to tap each stone and listen for sounds that could indicate damage. They're equipped with digital cameras and recorders to keep track of their findings.
Gach said he was confident that the monument would be open to the public again, though it remains closed indefinitely for now.
"The structure is sound," he said.
Dave Megerle, 52, of Boulder, Colo., the team's on-site safety officer, said the work was safer than riding in an elevator.
"When you're going up in an elevator, you only have one rope," he said. "We have two ropes, so we always have a fail-safe system. That makes you feel real comfortable."
Megerle had the first opportunity to go to the very top of the monument when he set the ropes Tuesday for the team, though he hasn't been involved in the day-to-day rappelling. He said it felt exhilarating, comparing it to climbing the El Capitan rock formation in Yosemite National Park years ago.
"I don't go rock climbing much anymore," Megerle said. "This is pretty much what I do for my adrenaline fix, but it compares to El Cap, being at that height. It's that constant buzz of the height."
Carol Johnson, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, said the team would continue working at least through Monday, including this weekend.
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