At Statue of Liberty, visitors kept at a distance

Park Service pledges to reopen landmark, but nobody knows when

November 18, 2001|By Brian Kladko | Brian Kladko,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - As lower Manhattan was obscured by smoke and dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center, the Statue of Liberty stood defiantly erect, apart and unsullied. For many people during those first awful days, it was a comforting symbol of America's perseverance.

But the statue, one of the nation's most visible and visited monuments, can inspire only from a distance. Since Sept. 11, Lady Liberty hasn't welcomed visitors.

The National Park Service has pledged to reopen the statue, but officials say they don't know when or under what circumstances. The agency will announce its plans in a few weeks, said David Barna, a Park Service spokesman in Washington.

The statue's continued closure, weeks after other high-profile monuments and tourist attractions have reopened, indicates the newfound interest in the statue's security.

But long before Sept. 11, federal officials had reason for concern. The Park Service's staff and the New York City Fire Department warned that the statue was plagued by safety problems that could exacerbate the impact of a terrorist attack.

"Major logistical problems of dealing with a terrorist attack on the island will have to be resolved," the Fire Department cautioned last year.

Safety problems

Among the safety problems cited by the Park Service and Fire Department: On some days, the narrow, spiral staircase becomes packed with people, with no alternative means of escape.

The statue lacks internal barriers to prevent the spread of fire and smoke.

Firefighters and rescue workers would not get to Liberty Island for at least 15 minutes.

Water pressure on the island is inadequate to put out a fire, forcing firefighters to spend additional time hooking their hoses into a pump brought over from Manhattan.

"These delays will have a profound effect on the safety of the people visiting this national monument," William P. Blaich, commander of the department's 1st Battalion, wrote in a March 2000 report.

Such concerns prompted a Park Service official to warn in a 1998 report, "There is a very high probability of life loss and severe injury within the statue in the event of a fire or smoke condition." The report suggested that the Park Service limit the number of people allowed to climb to the statue's crown, or bar such treks altogether.

The Park Service dismissed that idea at the time, saying the risk wasn't serious enough to warrant closing an attraction that draws about 3.4 million visitors a year.

But the events of Sept. 11 redefined the notion of acceptable risk. At office buildings, airports, bridges, and tunnels, measures deemed too politically unpopular or too expensive have suddenly become more plausible.

Park Service officials acknowledge that the devastation at the World Trade Center, where thousands of people were trapped within the collapsed towers, has changed their assumptions about the statue's safety.

But they won't detail what precautions they may take, other than saying they might begin using metal detectors and X-ray searches of bags before allowing people to board ferries to the island. Before the statue's closing, such screening was done as people entered the statue.

The Park Service's director, Frances Mainella, declined repeated requests for an interview.

"She's not going to be willing to talk about the Statue of Liberty until we figure out the future, and when it's going to open, and what the security is going to look like," said Barna, the director's spokesman. "We're going through a security review, and then we'll figure out what to do."

Arson risk reported

The Park Service has been warned three times in the last three years of dangers or deficiencies in the statue, and was advised in 1998 that the "arson potential is moderate to high."

In April, Park Service officials promised to follow a consultant's "high priority" recommendations, including installation of fire and smoke barriers, additional sprinklers, an additional exit, and increasing the water pressure for sprinklers and hoses.

But officials didn't convey any sense of urgency: They didn't know when the work would be done or how much it would cost, and said the projects would have to compete for funding with other construction projects within the National Park Service.

Since Sept. 11, however, the Park Service has treated the Statue of Liberty differently than its other attractions.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia reopened the day after the attacks. The observation deck of the Empire State Building reopened Sept. 29. The United Nations resumed tours Oct. 11.

The Washington Monument, a 555-foot-tall obelisk, has been closed since December 2000 for renovation. The National Park Service hopes to open it, including the observation deck near the top, by the end of the year.

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