On Aug. 23, 2011, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake shook the eastern coast of the United States causing wide-spread damage, especially in the areas surrounding the epicenter of the quake near Mineral, Va. Damage in the Washington, D.C. area ranged from cosmetic cracking to minor architectural facade distress to serious structural damage, depending on the type and location of buildings. A number of significant landmarks were impacted, including the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral. In a matter of minutes after the quake, Penn State architectural engineering alumni began to respond to the emergency.
As a result of the need for immediate investigation and stabilization efforts, Erik Sohn, a 2001 graduate now with Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. (WJE) in Fairfax, Va., helped to mobilize WJE’s “difficult access team” (DAT). David Mergle, an experienced rope access / climber from WJE Denver assisting with the rigging. Other team members working along with Sohn to assess the structural integrity of the two landmark buildings were Paul Parfitt (2007 graduate), Sonja Hinish (2009 graduate), Nicole Lucas (2009 graduate) and Daniel Gach of WJE Denver.
Enthralling crowds of onlookers over a period of several weeks, the WJE DAT and inspection teams (which also included four other women, Emma Cardini, Katie Francis, Jakki Ledger and Erin Ward) rappelled from the top of the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral with ropes and harnesses climbing up and down to inspect and record existing conditions including cracks, loose stones, damaged masonry anchorages and in the case of the cathedral, twisted and fallen sections of the pinnacles. Sohn was featured several times on national TV news programs as he dangled on the sides of the Washington Monument.
As a part of the up-close facade inspections, smaller pieces of loose stone and mortar were removed by the team in debris bags; more significant stabilization and temporary repair activities followed.
While dangling from his rappelling gear, Parfitt posed with one of the whimsical grotesques that adorn the northwest tower of the National Cathedral. The sculpture of Darth Vader, the evil nemesis of the Star Wars movies, was the result a winning entry by Christopher Rader in a children’s decorative sculpture completion held in the 1980s. The head was sculpted by Jay Hall Carpenter and carved by Patrick J. Plunkett.
Parfitt is a son of Kevin Parfitt, associate professor of architectural engineering at Penn State.
“My first reaction to seeing Paul and the other students I taught hanging off the side of a building was to yell, ‘be careful!’ but I know how much WJE stresses safety in all their inspection activities,” Parfitt said of his son’s high-flying adventure. “With that in mind, who wouldn’t want to be photographed with Darth Vader?”
A feature article on the earthquake event will appear in the Spring 2012 issue of the Penn State Architectural Engineering Newsletter.