WASHINGTON (AP) - The towering symbol that honors the first U.S. president and hero of the American Revolution reopened to the public Monday, nearly three years after an earthquake cracked and chipped the 130-year-old Washington Monument's stone obelisk.
After fences were dismantled and construction equipment removed, the monument drew a cross section of Americans who wanted to be among to first visit the newly reopened historic site. For many of them, it was their first chance to see the 169-meter-tall monument's interior and the U.S. capital from its highest point.
Engineers have spent nearly 1,000 days conducting an extensive analysis and restoration of what was once the tallest structure in the world. A 5.8-magnitude quake in August 2011 caused widespread damage. It shook some stones loose and caused more than 150 cracks. From massive scaffolding built around the monument after the quake, engineers and stone masons made repairs stone by stone.
Now, new exhibits have been installed at the top, and visitors can once again ride an elevator to look out over the National Mall. The National Park Service is offering extended hours through the summer for daytime and evening visits. Tickets can be reserved online, but they're already booked into June.
Some of the first visitors said they came to experience the monument's historic symbolism, which was built between 1848 and 1884 and briefly reigned as the world's tallest structure until it was eclipsed by the Eiffel Tower.
Kourtney Butler of Miami just graduated from nearby Howard University, but the monument has been closed and under construction for most of her four years living in Washington.
"I wanted to get a chance to see it," she said. "I really like the monuments and the national mall. I think I've been to all the Smithsonian museums and art exhibits. So it was the last one I hadn't seen."
National Mall Superintendent Robert Vogel greeted each of the first visitors as they waited in line. It was an emotional ending to a long repair project and a reminder that the public rallied to build the memorial in the 1800s, he said.
"They're all very excited," Vogel said of the visitors "They're from all over the country and the world, and that's what it's all about."
"It's been a long, arduous task to get it open," he said. "But what's kept us all going is there's just been this great outpouring of interest and caring about the Washington Monument from the day the earthquake hit. Hopefully it reminds everyone how important this monument is."
For the hundreds of visitors Monday, the elevator trip to the top took just 70 seconds, and a more leisurely two minutes, 45 seconds back down.
Ferrell Armstrong, 74, of Kinmundy, Illinois, and his wife, Connie, 70, visited with their son and were determined to be among the first visitors when he promised the family a stop in Washington, after he underwent treatments for cancer - now in remission - in Virginia. A tear formed in his eye after they came down from the top.
"It's just immaculate. It's just great that people that far back thought about building something this great that's still here," he said. "It symbolized to me a great man, George Washington."
Randall Armstrong, his 36-year-old son, said the view from the top looking over the White House and National Mall was "breathtaking - probably the top site I've seen, ever."
"The tour guide pointed out and showed me Obama's basketball court, and you could see the little girls' swings," he said, referring to the swing set at the White House for the president's daughters, Sasha and Malia.