Published July 03, 2009
NEW YORK – It's crowded. It's hot. You have to climb hundreds of steps to get there. And throngs of people can't wait to visit.
Unfortunately, many will have to. Tickets sold out fast for the July Fourth reopening of the Statue of Liberty's crown, closed since shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Aaron Weisinger, a 26-year-old from Walnut Creek, Calif., was one of the lucky ones. He will be part of the first group of tourists in eight years to climb the 354 steps, 146 of them up a narrow spiral staircase, to stand atop the statue's head and peer from under the spikes of her crown.
"The statue is very powerful. It symbolizes liberty and freedom," said Weisinger, whose great-grandparents met Lady Liberty's gaze as they passed through Ellis Island from Eastern Europe.
Reasons vary for why the crown has been closed for so long, and there are questions about the role terrorism played in that.
After terrorists leveled the World Trade Center just across New York Harbor, the statue was closed to visitors until 2004, when the base, pedestal and outdoor observation deck reopened.
In May, the Obama administration announced that the crown would once again welcome visitors, albeit cautiously. Starting Saturday, only 30 people an hour will be allowed into the crown, and they will be brought up in groups of 10, guided by park rangers along the way.
New handrails have been installed to help with the climb. Bags, both big and small, are not allowed. Only cameras and cell phones are acceptable.
The National Park Service says the crown remained closed since Sept. 11 because the narrow, double-helix staircases could not be safely evacuated in an emergency and didn't comply with fire and building codes. Tourists often suffered heat exhaustion, shortness of breath, panic attacks, claustrophobia and fear of heights, spokesman Darren Boch said.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., has pushed for years for the crown to be reopened, once calling the decision to close it off "a partial victory for terrorists." He said for it to be off limits for so long was an embarrassment.
"I've always said this was as much a failure of creativity as it was a failure of courage," Weiner said. "I just think they couldn't figure out basic things like limiting the number of people, for example, or limiting whether they can carry a bag with them.
"It's such a great experience for all the reasons why the National Park Service wanted us not to have it. It's great because it is cramped. It's great because it is hot. It's great because it's an adventure."
Boch insisted that fear of a terrorist attack was not the primary reason why the crown remained closed. The statue's designer, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, never intended for visitors to ascend to the crown, he said.
"We had actually looked at closing the crown even before 9/11, for the safety of visitors and protection of the resource itself," Boch said.
The $15 tickets to the crown went on sale June 13, and tickets for the July Fourth weekend sold out within hours. Four of those tickets went to Weisinger, whose girlfriend's parents are also immigrants.
"We're both in a situation where our parents and great-grandparents put in so much work for us to be able to live the lives that we do," he said.
So far, about 14,500 tickets to the crown have been sold, most of them for visits through the end of August. Tickets currently on sale are for visits in the fall and beyond.
Recent visitors to Liberty Island fondly remembered previous trips to the crown and looked forward to getting up there again.
Victor Smith, of Vicksburg, Miss., hadn't been back to the statue since he was 12. The 66-year-old recalled climbing the long spiral staircase with his brother and father.
"My older brother was 14 and we like to run him to death going up the stairs, but it was fun," Smith said.
Not everyone was so enthusiastic.
"I thought it was overrated even as a kid," said Christine Lancet, a 26-year-old park ranger on Liberty Island and a native New Yorker. "Personally, I'm not a big fan of a spiral staircase. It's very tight, it's very narrow, it's dark, you're not paying attention to what's going on around you because your concern is, 'Oh, my god, let me up to the crown, please!"'
But some said the challenge would be hard to ignore.
Carla Vergara, a 32-year-old from Buenos Aires, Argentina, was sitting on the green lawn beneath Lady Liberty with her husband, Damian, and their 8-month-old son, Manuel. The family was visiting New York for the first time when they learned they were a week too early for the chance to climb to the crown.
"We've been in the Eiffel Tower, we've been in the Pisa tower, we've been in the Vatican at the top," she said. "We are a little bit disappointed that we couldn't be in here, too," Vergara said.
Even Victor Smith's 63-year-old wife, Betty, yearned for a chance to climb and conquer.
"That's just like people going to the top of Mount Everest. You stand at the bottom and you can look up and think, 'Why would any fool want to go up to the top of Mount Everest?' But it's up there and people want to experience that, and so they risk their lives to do it. That's what life is all about, our experiences along the way."