NEW YORK – The first visitors allowed into the Statue of Liberty's crown in nearly eight years began the arduous climb Saturday on an Independence Day journey laden with symbolism of freedom and national pride.
"I feel like I was just born today," said Andrea Balfour, 38, as she prepared to ascend the 354 steps with her daughter, Mona. Mona won an essay contest to get to go up to crown Saturday — her 13th birthday.
The visit was the Staten Island pair's "biggest dream," Balfour said.
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The statue was closed to the public after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The base, pedestal and outdoor observation deck were reopened in 2004, but the crown remained off-limits.
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., pushed for years for the crown to be reopened, once calling the decision to close it off "a partial victory for terrorists." He said it was embarrassing that it was off-limits for so long.
The reopening "represents some personal vindication," he said Saturday. "It's nice to pat Lady Liberty's toes. It's nice to stand and breathe the air on Liberty Island, but you really haven't lived the experience until you've gone up to the crown. A lot of Americans are able to see that now."
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. Tickets for the July Fourth weekend sold out within hours.
Marking the historic date, seven members of the U.S. armed forces were sworn in as citizens Saturday at the statue's base.
"It's the very diversity of this country that has made us strong," Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said.
Thirty people an hour will be allowed into the crown. They will be brought up in groups of 10, guided by park rangers along the way.
Some of the crown's 25 windows offer a view of the Manhattan skyline, no longer punctuated by the 110-story twin towers of the World Trade Center.
New handrails have been installed to help with the climb. Bags are not allowed; only cameras and cell phones are acceptable.
The statue, 305 feet tall to the tip of its raised torch, was designed to mark the 1876 centennial of the Declaration of Independence. It faces the entrance to New York Harbor, welcoming the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," in the words of Emma Lazarus, engraved on a bronze plaque inside the statue.
The torch has been closed since it was damaged by a saboteur's bomb in 1916.
Visitors are now screened before boarding ferries and again before they can visit the museum in the base or climb to the top of the pedestal.
Jennifer Stewart won a Statue of Liberty lookalike contest to join the first group of visitors headed to the crown. The Brooklyn Heights resident, who has imitated the statue for 23 years, arrived in full costume and green makeup.
"Being able to perceive the world through her eyes, from Liberty's crown — I just feel it's so important to maintain the opportunity to literally be a part of liberty," she said.