WASHINGTON (WUSA9) - Wounded warriors were the first to go up to the top of the Washington Monument when it reopened to the public on Monday. In total, 1,800 lucky people will be able to go inside the monument Monday.
Corporal Tim Donley said the view was "beautiful, but haunting." Donley lost both legs in a blast in Afghanistan the month he arrived. He said looking out at the capital and Arlington National Cemetery, he thought of all the people who have given even more than him in the cause of freedom.
The site was shut down in 2011 to undergo extensive repairs after the East Coast earthquake left more than 150 cracks in the marble of the Washington Monument. The interior secretary says it actually shook the monument up towards the top about five-eighths of an inch so there were cracks all up and down the monument. Crews had to put scaffolding on something called tuck pointing. Once repairs were complete, the scaffolding was removed and now the monument is ready for visitors.
Half the repairs were paid for with a $7.5 million donation from billionaire "patriotic philanthropist" David Rubenstein.
"We're so excited to welcome the public back to the monument," said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles with the National Park Service earlier on Monday morning.
TV personality and master of ceremonies Al Roker spoke to the crowd during the reopening ceremony near 17th Street on Monday morning. He said that the monument wasn't just about George Washington but that it was "a history lesson in marble."
After the presentation of colors, Roker introduced elementary students from D.C. who provided their own history lesson.
Free tours began at 1:00 p.m. At the front of the line on Monday were wounded warriors; some of whom were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. WUSA9's Bruce Leshan talked to Marine Cpl. Tim Donley. He said going up the monument and looking out at the very structures of American government -- the White House, the Capitol -- from the towering symbol of democracy reminded him of what he was fighting for.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell joined wounded veterans on the first elevator ride to the monument's observation area. She said in a written statement, "It is only appropriate that those who have sacrificed for our nation should be the first today to reach the top of a monument dedicated to George Washington, a man who reluctantly left private life to serve his country, first as a soldier and later as president."
Visitors will be able to enjoy new exhibits installed at the top of the 555-foot structure. There's even a new exhibit telling the story of General Washington.
According to Anzelmo-Sarles, there are "some great beautiful, brand new exhibits. They just finished getting them installed at 3:00 in the afternoon on Friday. You can still smell the glue drying."
"Folks can walk up. They can touch the stone, feel that marble and get in the elevator and get up to the top. See the incredible view of the city. It's unmatched," said Anzelmo-Sarles.
The project was completed on time and within budget, thanks to David Rubenstein's $7.5 million donation to the Park Service, which was matched by funds from Congress, said Anzelmo-Sarles.
The project manager says the new and improved monument is nearly earthquake proof.
ORDER ADVANCE TICKETS ONLINE: http://www.recreation.gov/tourParkDetail.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=77811
WATCH: EarthCam time-lapse of Washington Monument restoration http://youtu.be/rgomsxUVa2U
Here's an interesting fact: Abraham Lincoln was sitting as a congressman for the dedication when the Washington Monument first opened. The elevator was such new technology, it was considered too risky for women and children. So the men took elevator up and the women and children had to walk the 896 steps up to the top.