Some traveled to Capitol Hill in the wee hours yesterday to see a once-in-a-lifetime change in the Washington skyline as it happened. Others wanted an excuse to party. And many, many more wanted to see what seven tons of bronze would look like after plunging 300 feet from a Skycrane helicopter.

But Freedom did not fall. In fact, the removal of the statue that has graced the dome of the U.S. Capitol since 1863 went flawlessly, disappointing some of the thousands getting their first up-close look at the weathered sculpture.

"This is just like the Indy 500," Andy Rittenberg, a government employee, said with a chuckle. "You don't go to see the drivers complete the laps; you go to see the pileups."

The crowds arrived early, with many people lugging children, pets, picnic breakfasts, cameras, telescopes and binoculars to the scene before the 14,985-pound, 19 1/2-foot Statue of Freedom was lowered to a platform on the East Plaza for a four-month restoration and preservation project.

The statue was securely trussed around its shoulders and waist with heavy-duty nylon straps and ensconced in a protective cage wired to its base, but the stunt still seemed dicey to many spectators.

"The possibility of impending doom: That's why all these people are here," said a Senate staff member, who asked not to be identified.

Some were startled by nature's wear and tear on Freedom. "I don't want to be disrespectful to the lady, but she looks better on her pedestal up there" on the Capitol dome, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) joked yesterday after inspecting the statue on the plaza.

"The serious side of it, of course, is that we're going to have this great statue all ready {and} shined up when we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Congress in September," Foley said.

The need to remove and refurbish Freedom became clear in 1988, when an inspection team discovered heavy black and green corrosion on the statue, as well as pitting on its metal surface and unsightly caulk patching in its seams.

For the next four months workers using medium-pressure hoses will blast the statue clean with crushed walnut shells or water. The statue then will be treated with chemicals that will restore its early blue-green color and protect it from additional corrosion.

The removal, cleanup and reinstallation will cost $750,000, all of it provided through private donations. Capitol Police said yesterday that they will post a round-the-clock guard while Freedom is on the ground.

An eclectic assortment of gritty motorcyclists and prim grandparents, political operatives, aviation buffs, Ivy Leaguers and blue-collar working stiffs mingled easily on the Capitol grounds while waiting for an orange, praying mantis-like helicopter to lift off and perform its task.

John Hillenbrand, 34, of Kensington, roused himself and his 3-year-old daughter, Katherine, out of bed at 4:30 a.m. and drove to the Capitol to watch what he called a "once-in-a-lifetime" event.

"She was dragging until I reminded her it was helicopter time. Then she got right up," Hillenbrand said of Katherine, who sat on his shoulders gripping a tiny pair of plastic binoculars.

A few yards away, Blair Downing, a former Bush administration employee who is now unemployed, gathered with a few friends for a picnic, complete with champagne.

"It's a party," he said with a broad smile, digging into a plate of mixed fruit topped with fresh cream. "There's just this wonderful sense of community and good feeling out here today. As we were walking up East Capitol {Street}, everybody was smiling and saying, 'Good morning! Good morning! Can you believe we're out here?' "

The staff of the Capitol newspaper Roll Call printed 300 commemorative T-shirts and watched the freebies disappear within seconds in a flurry of eager hands.

The crowds cheered at 6:25 a.m. as pilots from Erickson Air-Crane Co., of Central Point, Ore., fired up their S-64F Sikorsky Skycrane, a craft capable of lifting as much as 25,000 pounds. Four minutes later, the Statue of Freedom was dangling 300 feet above ground and swaying slightly in a light breeze.

Five riggers who had attached the statue's protective truss to the helicopter slapped their hands together in victorious high-fives and embraced as the sculpture was safely lowered to the ground and fastened to its stand.

While the statue was still atop the Capitol dome, workers affixed two red, white and blue bumper stickers to Freedom's sword and shield that proclaimed, "Proud to be an American."

"It was windy as hell up there, and it took me by surprise" rigger Jeff Grooms told a group of admirers once he reached terra firma. "For a second there, I thought {the helicopter} was going to blow me down or something."

Max Evans, the Erickson pilot who controlled the lifting and placement of the statue, shook hands with his crew members after finishing the mission and chatted with wide-eyed spectators. He said the flight "went just like we planned it. . . . We do jobs much more difficult than this."

The statue removal project had became a political football on Capitol Hill, pitting lobbyists for the private helicopter industry against supporters of a Mississippi National Guard crew handpicked to do the job by George M. White, architect of the Capitol.

The Department of Defense intervened last month, refusing to allow Guard helicopters to be used because of a policy against competing with private industry.

The statue, referred to in some early documents as "Freedom triumphant in peace and war," depicts a robed woman wearing an eagle helmet, clutching a sheathed sword in one hand and a laurel wreath of victory in the other. The wreath rests upon a shield with 13 stripes, representing the 13 original colonies.

U.S. sculptor Thomas Crawford modeled the statue in plaster at his studio in Italy but died before it could be shipped. Ironically, his allegorical vision of freedom and justice was cast in bronze by slaves employed by artist Clark Mills at his shop in Prince George's County.

The statue was hauled up to the Capitol dome in five sections by workers using a steam engine and assembled on its cast-iron pedestal. The statue has not been moved since it was assembled in 1863.

"This is an incredibly important statue and was highly regarded at the time it went up as a major capstone to our most outstanding public building," said House Historian Raymond W. Smock. "You have to remember this was before the era of major monuments, before the Washington Monument was finished, before the era of skyscrapers. It probably was the most revered public icon in that sense."

The statue appeared on early revenue stamps and on several postage stamps over the years. Most recently, in 1989, it appeared on a commemorative coin struck for the 200th anniversary of Congress.

"Its image filtered into other popular media, and it was considered a very important work of art," Smock said. "But in the 20th century, its stature is somewhat lost in a sea of other monuments."