Salazar to consider Liberty crown reopening

January 23, 2009 6:26:32 PM PST
Newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar chose the Statue of Liberty to make his first official public appearance outside Washington, and local lawmakers hope the symbolic act will lead to the reopening of part of the iconic monument. More than seven years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Statue of Liberty's crown and the circular stairway leading up to it remain closed to the public due to safety concerns.

After a climb up those 168 stairs to the crown on Friday that he described as a "thrilling, emotional experience," Salazar sounded an optimistic, if measured, tone.

"Having this icon of America opened up to the public is very important," he said. "That has to be balanced against the public safety issues. I have some sense of expectation and hope that we'll be able to find a management regime that will allow us to provide access in some way to the crown."

One solution being considered is to limit the number of people allowed up the cramped, claustrophobic stairway. Salazar noted that similar restrictions are in place at the Grand Canyon and Colorado River, which don't allow unfettered public access to all areas.

A decision could be made on whether to reopen the crown after the completion of a study commissioned by the National Parks Service, expected by mid-April. The park service said last July that several assessments conducted by architectural and engineering firms since Sept. 11 have concluded the area from the statue's pedestal to the crown doesn't meet safety codes.

Visitors currently are limited to the 154-foot-tall pedestal, which has an outdoor observation deck that extends around the statue's exterior. The pedestal and observation deck were closed after the terrorist attacks and reopened in August 2004 after $20 million was spent to improve fire safety.

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., U.S. Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., and U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., have pushed to have the crown reopened, and Menendez and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., added an amendment to a 2006 immigration bill that required the Department of the Interior to reopen the stairs leading up to the crown. The House has not taken similar action.

The Department of the Interior has the authority to reopen the crown without seeking legislative approval, according to Afshin Mohamadi, a spokesman for Menendez.

Menendez said Friday that reopening Lady Liberty's crown would send a symbolic message.

"I recognize whatever challenges there are about safety," he said. "The reality is they existed before Sept. 11, they existed before 2004 and they'll exist afterward. The question is freeing up the crown and having the ability to send the message that this symbol of freedom cannot be shackled by those who wish us ill."

Friday's delegation also toured nearby Ellis Island, where efforts are under way to restore a dilapidated building that once housed a public health facility where immigrants were screened.

Other parts of the island's southern side, which faces the Statue of Liberty, were reopened in 2007 after sitting idle for more than 50 years after the island's closure in 1954.