WASHINGTON (AP) -- The towering symbol that honors the nation's first president reopened to the public Monday, nearly three years after an earthquake cracked and chipped the 130-year-old stone obelisk.
After fences were dismantled and construction equipment removed, the Washington Monument drew a cross section of Americans who wanted to be among to first visit the newly reopened historic site. A Mormon missionary, a new graduate from Howard University, two health care workers from Georgia and others were among those gathered Monday. For many of them, it was their first chance to see the 555-foot-tall monument's interior and the nation's capital from its highest point.
"I've seen pictures of it, but I've never been here to see it," said Brandon Hillock, 22, from near Salt Lake City, visiting after a two-year Mormon mission in Virginia. "It's really cool to come here and experience what this is all about and the history behind it."
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 dates back to its early construction before the Civil War and was later finished in 1884.
Kourtney Butler of Miami just graduated from 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."