After two weeks of sporadic glitches with the Washington Monument's lone elevator, National Park Service leaders are dispelling rumors of elevator "free falls" and reassuring employees that the machinery is safe to operate.
In a May 23 memo to his staff, National Mall and Memorial Parks Superintendent Robert Vogel acknowledged recurring problems throughout the month of May and said NPS contractor Quality Elevator is continuing to monitor the elevator.
"I have been assured by experts we have called in to diagnose why the elevator has experienced stoppages that the elevator is safe to operate," Vogel wrote in an internal document obtained by CQ Roll Call, which suggested the root of some elevator problems might be human error. Vogel noted that the elevator, installed in 2001, had experienced "sporadic problems" during the 32 months the monument was closed to the public. To accommodate earthquake damage restoration work, it was adjusted to operate at a slower speed and used to transport materials to the 500-foot level.
As the NPS prepared for the monument's May 12 re-opening , technicians gave the elevator a thorough inspection. Officials from the General Services Administration also inspected the elevator and on May 9 certified it was still working properly.
Despite that, problems persisted, so Vogel ordered Quality Elevator to remain onsite throughout operating hours to determine the cause of outages.
On May 14, one glitch briefly stranded visitors near the top of the monument, forcing one group to walk down 896 steps from the observation level.
Five days later, the elevator's computer detected another malfunction. Although there was no stoppage, technicians arrived early the next morning to replace the malfunctioning part and perform more tests — work that delayed the monument's opening by 30 minutes on May 20.
The issues disturbed Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who feared a dysfunctional elevator could become the Achilles' heel of the crown jewel of D.C. tourist attractions. She called Vogel and learned the visitor rate had stayed "sky high," despite the glitches.
"Most importantly, I was reassured that the elevator is operationally safe and that the breakdown was an issue with the door," Norton said in a release following the call. "Whatever the issue, it needs to be addressed quickly – even if it means a new elevator system."
Another outage occurred on May 21 at 6 p.m. Technicians discovered that the elevator key was positioned between "operating mode" and "inspection mode," and computer analysis of the outage indicated the problem was human error.
"This may have also been the cause in a previous stoppage about a week earlier," Vogel wrote, noting that Quality Elevator was continuing to monitor the situation and had removed the key to rule out future issues.
Vogel assured employees that there is no physical nor computer evidence that the elevator has experienced "free falls."
"If we did receive one, the elevator would have been immediately stopped and the Monument closed," he wrote. "The elevator has multiple safeguards to prevent such an occurrence."
The NPS did not comment on Norton's suggestion that the elevator system might need to be replaced.
The current elevator takes less than 72 seconds to give visitors the 500-foot vertical ride from the monument's lobby to the observation level. It was installed during a $10.5-million overhaul that took place from 1998 to 2001.
Carol Johnson, spokeswoman for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, did not respond to inquiries about the cost of replacing the elevator.