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Lady Liberty Puts Back Welcome Mat

Closed since 9/11, the statue will reopen in July after security upgrades. The crown is off-limits, however

March 31, 2004|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The Statue of Liberty, one of the world's most recognized symbols of freedom, will reopen in July after extensive security upgrades -- but visitors won't be allowed to climb to its crown.

Authorities closed the 118-year-old national monument immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"This impressive statue has always been a beacon to our shores," Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said at a news conference Tuesday on Liberty Island, where she announced renewed public access to the statue.

"Unfortunately, she has also been a symbol to the darker forces of terrorism."

Lady Liberty, Norton said, was a target before Sept. 11 and continues to be one.

"We're proceeding cautiously with the safety of citizens and the preservation of that wonderful statue as our goal," she said.

Since the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon, the Interior Department has spent $19.6 million to upgrade security at the thin-skinned copper monument that dominates the entrance to New York Harbor.

New fire alarm and containment systems have been installed, and a special escape stairway to the ground from the statue's base is being constructed. Helicopters and patrol boats with thermal imaging and night vision capacity also now guard a restricted water zone around Liberty Island.

Security has been so tight since the island reopened to the public on Dec. 20, 2001, that even wristwatches are scanned before people can board the ferry for the brief ride from Manhattan. Once on the island, visitors have been kept to a wide perimeter around the statue.

Starting in late July, however, the public will be allowed to enter an observation area atop the statue's base, where they can view the harbor and Manhattan's skyline.

The pedestal will contain exhibits, including life-size copper replicas of Lady Liberty's head and feet.

Visitors also will be able to gaze up -- through a new 3-inch-thick glass ceiling in the statue's base -- at the intricate latticework of beams supporting the monument's interior.

But Norton said the practice of allowing people to climb the narrow, winding staircase -- originally designed for use by a light keeper and maintenance personnel -- into Lady Liberty's crown will continue to be forbidden, perhaps permanently.

She said the interior of the statue did not meet fire and safety codes, as sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi never envisioned people climbing inside it.

In a statement, Democratic Rep. Anthony D. Weiner, whose district includes parts of Brooklyn and Queens, called for the monument's complete reopening.

"Before Sept. 11, visitors were able to ascend all the way to the Statue of Liberty's head. Today, the Park Service says she'll reopen, but visitors will get no higher than the soles of her feet," he said. "That's hardly a restoration of Lady Liberty's pre-Sept. 11 glory."

Since the terrorist attacks, the number of visitors to the monument has declined. In 2000, according to National Park Service statistics, 5.5 million people traveled to Liberty Island; 3.2 million visited in 2003.

The statue, which is 151 feet tall and weighs 450,000 pounds, has welcomed millions of immigrants to the American dream and remains a powerful architectural and emotional force.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who attended the news conference and who personally donated $100,000 to a fund for the monument's upgrading, said he remembered visiting it as a boy with his parents.

"I always wondered what my grandparents on one side and my great-grandparents on the other thought when they came into this harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty," Bloomberg said. "They probably didn't speak the language, and probably didn't have any friends, and their prospects were unknown. It must have been a very welcoming sight."

As she rode the ferry back to Manhattan, Kristin Busch, 23, a high school biology teacher from Missouri, pondered the meaning of the statue after the terrorist attacks.

"If they had taken that out, it would have hit us even harder," she said. "It is still our symbol. We are not going to let other people dictate to us how we are going to live our lives."

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