September 1st, 2011
06:27 PM ET
By Padmananda Rama, CNN
Washington (CNN) - National Cathedral officials intend to reopen its doors in time for 9/11 prayer services, a spokesman said Thursday.
The Washington landmark has been closed since parts of its Gothic structure were damaged during last week's earthquake.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to give a keynote address at an interfaith service at the cathedral on the evening of September 11. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will also speak during a service Friday, September 9.
"I think that if the secretary of defense and President Obama are coming, that means it's safe to be here," cathedral spokesman Richard Weinberg told members of the media during a press tour of the cathedral's nave, the first since the 5.8 magnitude earthquake on August 23.
As the cathedral prepares to welcome the president and hundreds of guests, workers were busy Thursday afternoon securing the massive structure. Inside, they strung safety nets across the cathedral's vaults about 90 feet high, supported by steel beams.
"What had happened in the earthquake is the ceiling shook and some of the mortar between some of the joints in the stonework up above shook loose. This is just a precaution," head stonemason Joe Alonso told CNN while holding small pieces that fell during the initial quake.
"We feel nothing huge has been compromised, just these little bits of mortar so we're stretching this safety netting to catch if any more little pieces were to come down."
Alonso, who's worked at the cathedral since 1985, says he's inspected every part of the structure since the quake. Portions of its iconic central tower suffered extensive damage when three of its four pinnacles cracked, sending pieces falling on its roof. But Alonso says the cathedral's interior is safe.
"The basic structure down here, the main structure remains sound. That energy (from the earthquake) is transferred up, up, up through these very thick walls, just transferred up and that's where it ended up doing the most damage, on those slender exterior pinnacles and gablets and finials," Alonso explained.
He said he and his team of stonemasons and engineers started working on securing the cathedral immediately "after the earth stopped shaking."
"It's great that people will be able to see we are doing everything we can to get this cathedral back in operation because of the vital role that it fills," he said.
In a show of ecumenical support, the Catholic archdiocese donated $25,000 to support repairs to the cathedral, an Episcopalian church. Meanwhile, services for its congregation are being held at a nearby synagogue, the Washington Hebrew Congregation.
"The National Cathedral holds a special place in the hearts of all of us in Washington. So many recognize it as a national house of prayer," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Catholic archbishop of Washington, while announcing the donation. Cathedral officials estimate repairs will ultimately have a multimillion-dollar price tag.
The landmark has traditionally hosted presidential inaugural services, funerals and several interfaith services, including those now planned for the 10th anniversary of September 11, titled "A Call to Compassion."
Alonso said he and his stonemasons "will be tucked off to the side somewhere" as the president addresses the nation in a live broadcast the evening of September 11. Having witnessed many services, Alonso says he recognizes the significance of hosting an event focused on remembrance, even while the cathedral itself is in the midst of repairs.
"This cathedral serves a vital role in this country. There have been many events here, funerals for presidents and services of mourning," Alonso said. "We had the one after 9/11, 10 years ago, so we just have to show the country that the cathedral is here and what it stands for and that it's going to be open so that the president can talk to the country."
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