WASHINGTON - A cross section of Americans awakened early and waited in line for hours to be among the first to ride to the top of the Washington Monument, open to the public Monday for the first time in nearly three years after an earthquake chipped and cracked the towering symbol.
The 130-year-old, 555-foot-tall obelisk was built in honor of the nation's first president between 1848 and 1884 and briefly reigned as the world's tallest structure until it was eclipsed by the Eiffel Tower.
Engineers have spent nearly 1,000 days making repairs stone by stone. Now new exhibits have been installed, and the National Park Service is offering extended hours to visitors through the summer.
For the hundreds of visitors, the trip to the top of the tallest structure in Washington is brief: It's a 70-second ride to the top, and a more leisurely two minutes, 45 seconds back down. The massive monument's meaning is much more lasting for Marc Tanner.
"I just love American history, I love traveling to see American history, and this is it. You can't get more historic than this," said Tanner, of Boca Raton, Florida, who was one of the first to visit the top.
"I used to be a stock broker; I went through 9/11 as a broker, and ... it stands alone in the United States to represent freedom for me."
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 D.C. 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.
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."
Brandon Hillock, 22, of Lehi, Utah, was seeing the monument for the first time after finishing a two-year Mormon mission in Virginia. It was an eye-opening experience with his parents before they take him home.
"It's really cool to come here and experience what this is all about and the history behind it - the symbolism and everything else," he said.
After going to the top, Hillock said the monument made him think about the country's unity and "appreciate the freedom that people laid their lives down for so that we could have."
Most impressive, though, was how many blocks of stone make up the monument inside and out, he said, adding that the view from the top "is indescribable."
"It's much bigger than we thought," said his mother, Debbie Hillock. "In the pictures, it just doesn't do it justice."
Kristopher Lewis of Augusta, Georgia, and his wife, Mary Lewis, were visiting Washington for a medical conference.
"I played in front of the monument when I was in the eighth-grade band, so I wanted to come back and see it," Mary Lewis said.
It was Kristopher Lewis' first time going inside.
"It was a very exciting experience, riding up to the top," he said. "It was a beautiful day to see in all different directions."
Kristopher Lewis said it's a great monument "to the founders of our country and our first president, the great wisdom exercised in founding our country."