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Gathering at the Feet of Lady Liberty

For the first time since 9/11, the public can visit the New York icon, but they can't go beyond its base. Some lawmakers yearn for more progress.

August 04, 2004|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The Statue of Liberty opened to the public Tuesday for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks, with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg setting the tone by telling visitors: "We are not going to be intimidated. To reopen this beloved landmark is another way to send that message."

Reflecting the recent disclosure of threats against major financial institutions across the harbor, security on Liberty Island was intense: SWAT teams were in position as authorities screened visitors with a new, high-tech machine designed to detect traces of explosives on clothing.

"Today we open a new chapter for the Statue of Liberty," Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said as thousands of visitors arrived on ferries to again view the 118-year-old monument up close.

But it is an abbreviated chapter. The statue's crown will remain closed, with tourists allowed to visit only Lady Liberty's pedestal and base.

Nevertheless, those who gazed up in awe said the statue meant even more to them after the destruction of the World Trade Center and damage to the Pentagon in 2001.

"We are still coming. We cannot give in to terrorists," said Susan Isherwood, a retired nurse from Manchester, England. Standing nearby, Margaret Leonard of Berwin, Pa., looked at the statue. "It's hope," she said softly.

Under revised National Park Service rules, visitors can go as high as the 151-foot-tall statue's feet, where, looking up through a thick glass ceiling, they can view the girders that support the monument's copper skin -- which is the thickness of two pennies.

The stone base also has a new museum, including a replica of Lady Liberty's head.

The decision to only partially open the statue has drawn criticism from some New York lawmakers.

"If we can't figure out some way to restore the statue to her former glory, then the terrorists have truly won," Democratic Rep. Anthony D. Weiner, whose district includes parts of Brooklyn and Queens, said in a statement Monday.

"Opening to her feet is no declaration of victory," he said.

Weiner and U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged the Park Service to seek approval to prescreen visitors by using the no-fly list the Transportation Security Administration uses for airlines.

"It's a big step ahead that we're opening the base of the statue," Schumer said. "But if we can open her up head to toe, we should."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has spent $19.6 million to upgrade security at the statue, including new fire alarm and containment systems and an escape stairway to the ground from the monument's base.

The Park Service has said that health as well as security concerns were involved in the decision to keep the crown closed. In a statement issued Tuesday, it said the small spiral staircase leading to the crown was installed for maintenance and was unsuitable for large numbers of people.

When the crown was open, the Park Service said, visitor health problems occurred almost daily, such as shortness of breath, exhaustion, panic attacks and dizziness. Heart attacks and other life-threatening medical incidents happened periodically.

"Given what's going on the last few days [with the heightened terrorism alert], I suppose it's a reasonable question to ask why we didn't just cancel a high-profile event like this," Bloomberg said.

"I think to stay home and lock our doors is exactly what the terrorists want," he said.

"This is America, and Americans are strong, and Americans value their freedoms," the mayor said.

Norton told about 500 invited guests seated in the hot summer sun that since Sept. 11, 2001, the statue that for generations had welcomed immigrants had taken on new meaning.

"It rallies freedom fighters in the furthest corners of the globe," she said. "The torch the Statue of Liberty carries in her hand shines into Afghanistan, where millions of Afghans have recently registered to vote in the first election since the ouster of the Taliban. Her torch shines in Iraq, emerging from the shadow of dictatorship."

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