Security fears keep Lady Liberty off-limits

Closed since 9/11 attacks, statue is getting repairs to guard against terrorism

December 12, 2003|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - For strong-legged tourists who had their hearts set on climbing to the top of one of the nation's most iconic landmarks, the small white sign is like a "Dear John" letter from Lady Liberty.

"At this time, there is no entry inside the pedestal, museum, or the Statue of Liberty," reads the neatly printed placard posted in front of the entrance to the 117-year-old monument. "This is due to ongoing safety improvements. ... Due to the nature of the work, no reopening time has been given."

National Park Service officials hope that sometime next year the bronze doors at the base of the statue will open to admit visitors for the first time since they were shut Sept. 11, 2001. More than two years after the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers, the Statue of Liberty is the only major monument or tourist destination in New York that has not reopened.

"I didn't know it was still closed," said Lisa Williams, 28, of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., who rode the ferry from Battery Park in Manhattan to visit Liberty Island this week with her family.

Although the statue remains closed, Liberty Island and its neighbor, Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants were processed before being allowed to enter the country, reopened in December 2001.

That the statue is off-limits suggests that officials "are scared, that they're afraid it could be a target," Williams said. "It's part of a heightened sense of fear that everyone has."

As part of the effort to reopen the statue, federal officials and a nonprofit foundation recently launched a $5 million fund-raising campaign to pay for the work that will adapt this symbol of America's openness to immigrants to the less hospitable realities of a terrorism-tainted age.

Part of the work will enhance security at the island to prevent terrorist attacks. Park service officials are releasing no details about those plans. But the project also aims to make the statue easier to evacuate in case of an emergency.

Making a speedy exit is a major challenge at the cramped site, which drew 3 million visitors last year, down from a record 5 million in 2000.

"I think there had always been concerns that it was difficult to get people out," said Stephen Briganti, president of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which is leading the fund-raising effort. "And Sept. 11 exacerbated that."

Details of the emergency exit and other safety improvements are being reviewed and should be announced early next year, according to Briganti, whose foundation raised $87 million to pay for the statue's renovation in time for its centennial in 1986.

As part of the current campaign, American Express has pledged to donate at least $3 million. The financial services company, which helped raise money to pay for construction of the statue's pedestal in the 1880s, will donate 1 cent for every purchase made with an American Express card in December and January.

The company has also commissioned film director Martin Scorsese to make a documentary about the statue; it will be shown on the History Channel next month. In addition, Folgers coffee has pledged $1 million to the campaign. Briganti said the foundation is working to line up other donors but declined to release names.

The foundation also accepts donations at its Web site, www.statueofliberty.org.

Park service spokesman Brian Feeney pointed out that private fund raising always has been important to the statue.

In France, several methods, including a lottery and a fund-raising party in the monument's knee, were used to raise the money that allowed sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi to build his 151-foot statue of "Liberty Enlightening the World."

And in the United States, when efforts to pay for the 10-story pedestal lagged, newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World, started a campaign for contributions that netted $100,000.

One of the most important unresolved issues that must be settled before the statue reopens is whether visitors will be allowed again to climb inside the statue.

Feeney points out that the narrow staircase was built for workers to make repairs to the copper skin and iron skeleton of the monument, not for tourists. Bartholdi never intended the interior to be seen.

"The current experience is the sort of visit Bartholdi envisioned," Feeney said. "As a sculptor, he meant it to be a sculpture that you see from the outside. You come out to the island, you relax, you contemplate the statue's meaning, you enjoy the view of New York Harbor."

Briganti, the foundation head, said visitors should be able to at least view the interior, even if they cannot climb to the crown.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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