New Administration Inspires Hope for Full Access to Statue

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 2, 2009

NEW YORK -- For more than a hundred years, generations of New Yorkers, as well as tourists to the city, have made the trek up the spiral staircase to the crown of the Statue of Liberty, to peer through the small windows at the unparalleled view of New York Harbor.

But that iconic experience ended with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. All the national parks were briefly closed, but Liberty Island, the statue's home, remained shut for several months. When the island was reopened to visitors, in December 2001, the statue remained off-limits.

It was not until August 2004 that the statue's pedestal was opened to the public -- but the National Park Service, which controls Lady Liberty, kept the statue itself closed. The Park Service cited not security concerns but health and safety: The narrow, double-helix staircase was treacherous, officials said; the statue's interior could get stifling hot in the summer; and some visitors suffered from exhaustion, panic attacks and claustrophobia after climbing the 162 steps from the top of the pedestal to her crown.

"It's not closed because of any potential terrorist threats or even 9/11," said Darren Boch, the public affairs officer for the National Parks of New York Harbor. "Our primary concern has always been health and safety, not 9/11."

But closing the statue after the terrorist attacks, for whatever reason, has carried enormous symbolism, particularly for New York political leaders who have been demanding that Lady Liberty be fully reopened to the public.

"If there were ever a facility that should be completely reopened, it is the national park closest to Ground Zero," said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who has been campaigning for years to again make the statue's crown accessible.

Weiner has unsuccessfully sponsored legislation in the House to get the statue fully reopened. But he and others think they have a promising new chance with the incoming Obama administration.

In the Senate, Barack Obama, now president-elect, was one of the co-sponsors of the bill to reopen the statue. The Senate sponsor of the bill was Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), now Obama's nominee to be interior secretary, whose department has control over the Park Service and Lady Liberty.

When Salazar was nominated by Obama in mid-December, Weiner said in a statement, "Finally, we have a Secretary who understands that the only obstacle to opening the crown is a lack of courage and imagination." He added: "Today we are a step closer to providing safe access to the heights of Lady Liberty."

Weiner, a candidate for New York City mayor next year, said, "This has been a bit of a mission for me." He recalls first going up to Lady Liberty's crown as a child, his grandfather hoisting him on his shoulders for a peek out the small windows.

"It was cramped, it was narrow, it was hard to get into and out of," Weiner said in an interview. "That's part of the experience . . . the idea that you are crawling into that cramped space to that expansive view of New York Harbor." He returned to the crown in September 2007 and made a short video to publicize his case.

Reopening the crown has been supported by the New York Daily News, which said in an editorial, "The disgraceful and cowardly shuttering of the Statue of Liberty may soon be over."

Of course, reopening the crown would probably require changes. The staircase -- always intended for maintenance workers and not thousands of daily visitors -- might need to be reinforced. Future visitors might also be required to sign a waiver, and the climb could be restricted to a small number of visitors each day.

The Park Service, in response to demands from Weiner's House subcommittee in 2007, commissioned a private firm to assess whether there is a way to reopen the statue's crown to the public while meeting safety requirements. The final report is due in April.

Boch, the spokesman, said that he knows of no great public cry to reopen the crown and that most visitors are happy with the outdoor observation deck around the pedestal, which allows for 360-degree views of the harbor, albeit at the statue's base. "I find it more breathtaking because it's outdoors," he said.

Still, he said, he understands the concerns and the symbolism.

"It's symbolic from the point of view that it was open until 9/11," Boch said. "There's a feeling among some members of Congress that keeping the crown closed means we are somehow capitulating to terrorism," he said, adding that "9/11 did create a pretext for us to close it."

"To change something that's been done for generations," he said, was "not an easy decision for us to make."

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