Boatloads of tourists returned to Liberty Island on Thursday morning as the icon of American freedom reopened for the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

John Delano, 9, of Richmond, Va., was the first to set foot on the island home of the Statue of Liberty on Thursday, followed quickly by his 12-year-old brother, Philip.

Their father, Chip, said the family decided to take their vacation in New York this year after the attack on the World Trade Center. "We told [the boys] this was the time," Delano said.

John was impressed by the 115-year-old Lady Liberty, although he wasn't able to go to the top of the statue. "There's a lot more detail when you're this close," he said.

Because of security concerns, visitors won't be able to go inside the statue at least until next year, according to the National Park Service. And visitors were screened before they got onto the boats.

Ellis Island, where thousands of immigrants entered the United States during the past century, also reopened Thursday. The two islands are just across New York Harbor from lower Manhattan where the trade center's twin towers stood.

Firefighter Ron Parker was on the first boat across the harbor, taking a break from his work at ground zero. Wearing his firefighter's jacket and helmet, he knelt near the Statue of Liberty and said a silent prayer.

"I needed to come down here," he said.

Boats departed from Battery Park, in lower Manhattan, and Liberty State Park, in New Jersey, about 9 a.m.

Raymond Manzo of Hackettstown, N.J., arrived at Liberty State Park hours early.

"We just assume everything is going to be there all the time, and as we see now with the World Trade Center — I just find that upsetting," he said.

Before boarding the boats, visitors had to pass through metal detectors, and packages and backpacks were banned. National Park Service Director Fran Mainella said the screening will prevent any dangerous items from being brought onto the islands.

"Even before Sept. 11, we probably should have been doing that. But we've added that now, so everyone can feel comfortable that everything is secure when they get over here," Mainella said. She said there will probably be additional screening when the interior of the statue is reopened to visitors.

Shortly before the first group of tourists departed for the trip, a ceremonial U.S. flag was raised on Liberty Island, one so large it took four National Park Service employees to raise it.

One of the boats ferrying visitors, the Miss New Jersey, sold gifts at its concession stand including a book called "History of the World Trade Center 1973-2001" and key chains, magnets and snow globes featuring the twin towers.

Several other National Park Service sites in the city were closed Sept. 11, either because they were close to the World Trade Center attack or were used for staging of work crews. All have reopened.