NEW YORK — The Statue of Liberty's crown, with its exhilarating view of New York's skyscrapers, bridges and seaport, is reopening on Independence Day for the first time since terrorists leveled the World Trade Center just across the harbor.
Safety and security issues have been addressed and 50,000 people, 10 at a time, will get to visit the 265-foot-high crown in the next two years before it is closed again for renovation, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Friday.
"On July 4, we are giving America a special gift," Salazar said at a news conference on nearby Ellis Island. "For the first time in nearly eight years we will once again be able to have one of the most awesome experiences in the world."
Interior Department officials said they had not yet determined how to choose who climbs to the top. Spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said a lottery is one possibility. Salazar "wants the tickets to be distributed not based on your connections but in a fair and equitable way," she said.
The statue was closed to the public because of security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The base, pedestal and outdoor observation deck were reopened in 2004 but the crown remained off-limits.
Tourists can now climb to the top of the statue's pedestal and a lower observation area. Starting July 4, they'll be able to mount the 168 steps leading to the crown and its 25 windows.
Some of the windows offer a view of the Manhattan skyline, no longer punctuated by the 110-story twin towers of the World Trade Center.
The Park Service had said in the past that the narrow, double-helix spiral 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.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-NY, who has for years pushed for the crown to be reopened, once called the decision to close it off "a partial victory for the terrorists." On Friday, he said he sent a letter to Barack Obama, inviting the president to be the first person to tour the reopened crown on July 4.
A National Park Service spokesman said last year that the statue's designer, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, never intended for visitors to ascend to the crown.
Salazar said the decision to reopen it was based on a National Park Service analysis that included recommendations on reducing risk to visitors. Only 30 visitors an hour will be allowed to visit the crown, and they will be brought up in groups of 10, guided by a park ranger. Also, the handrails on the stairway will be raised.
"We cannot eliminate all the risk of climbing to the crown, but we are taking steps to make it safer," Salazar said.
The majestic copper 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 the 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.
Today, visitors are screened before boarding ferries and again before they can visit the museum in the base or climb to the top of the pedestal.
News of the reopening pleased tourists visiting Liberty Island on Friday.
"I'd go up in a second," said Bonita Voisine of Naples, Fla., pointing at the camera she would use to capture the panorama. "That means we're safer."
Susan Horton, of Greensboro, N.C., agreed, saying, "The fact that they're opening the crown must mean that they're confident of the security and that's good _ and the view will be spectacular."
Philip Bartush, of Sydney, Australia, who had gone as high as he was allowed on Friday and had looked up into the crown, said it would be "a challenge" to go up there, but "the view will be fantastic."
The crown will be closed again after two years for work on a permanent safety and security renovation, the department said. Barkoff said other parts of the statue may also be closed for that work, but the museum in the base will remain open.
When the project is done, about 100,000 visitors a year should be able to get to the crown, officials said.
On Friday, Salazar also announced that $25 million in stimulus funding will be used for improvements at Ellis Island, the historic immigration center in New York Harbor. The work will include stabilizing the 1908 Baggage and Dormitory Building, which housed immigrants awaiting processing, and repairing 2,000 feet of the island's crumbling seawall.
Acres of the island are still off-limits to the public, including a dilapidated hospital, a morgue and infectious disease wards where sick immigrants were either cured or died before they could start a new life in America.
The Interior Department said 40 percent of American citizens can trace a family connection to Ellis Island.
On the Net:
National Park Service's Statue of Liberty site: http://www.nps.gov/stli/