The announcement was as dramatic as the setting. Speaking live from the crown of the Statue of Liberty, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced exclusively Friday morning on the TODAY show that the statue will reopen to the public on Independence Day.
“On the Fourth of July, we will open up the Statue of Liberty to the people of America,” Salazar told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer from inside the crown of the iconic symbol of freedom. The interior of the statue that poet Emma Lazarus called “The New Colossus” has been closed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (While Liberty Island and the statue’s pedestal were reopened in August 2004, the statue itself has remained off-limits to the public.)
Salazar said that the timing of the statue’s reopening has special significance.
“We’ve been through some very tough times. The economic times we’re going through really call for hope and optimism. Nothing symbolizes hope and optimism in the United States of America [like] the Statue of Liberty.”
Crowning achievementSalazar said access will be limited to guided groups of 30 visitors at a time. He said some sort of lottery system will determine who gets to go up to the crown. “We’re going to do it in a fair way,” he said. “Everybody will have a chance to get up to the crown.”
The system will operate for two years, he said, after which the statue will be closed down again for renovations to make access to the crown easier and safer. Once those changes are made, 100,000 people a year will be able to climb to the top.
Since being named Secretary of the Interior in January by President Barack Obama, Salazar told Lauer he has been to the crown twice, with the second visit taking place live on TODAY.
“It’s awe-inspiring. It’s something that sends goose bumps down my shoulder blades down to my spine,” he told Lauer.
The TODAY show hosts — Lauer, Meredith Vieira, Ann Curry and Al Roker — opened Friday’s broadcast from the crown of the statue before Salazar joined Lauer to make his announcement. To help TODAY prepare for the event, the Interior Department and the National Park Service arranged for Lauer, Vieira, Curry and Roker to visit the statue and climb to the crown earlier this week. In doing so, they joined a very small number of people who have been to the top of the world-famous statue since it was closed more than seven years ago.
On that trip, they arrived on a boat from Manhattan, marveling like tourists at Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s colossus, given as a gift from France to America to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
“Thank you, France, for the beautiful gift to America!” exclaimed Curry.
“It really is awe-inspiring,” said Roker.
“It sure is,” added Vieira, who couldn’t resist stealing Bill Murray’s line from “Ghostbusters II”: “Do you think she’s wearing anything under that robe?”
“What’s wrong with you?” Roker laughed. “Lady Liberty, can you hear me? Run!”
But the Lady of the Harbor held her ground, her gold-plated torch held on high, a beacon since 1886 to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
On Liberty Island, they were greeted by the superintendent of Statue of Liberty National Monument, Frank Mills, who led their expedition on a spiral staircase to Lady Liberty’s crown and a spectacular view of New York Harbor, Ellis Island and neighboring New Jersey.
Mills estimates he’s been to the crown as many as 200 times, but said it never gets old.
“It’s America to me,” he said. “I’ve carried kids up here on my back for Make-a-Wish. I’ve had veterans. We’ve had so many different people ... To be the American kid from Brooklyn whose mom and grandma and aunt came over to this country, came through Ellis Island, to be able to be here, protecting it, showing what America’s all about, it's a real honor.”
Reopened for businessFrom the statue’s dedication in 1886 until 2001, millions of tourists had hiked 354 steps up the spiral staircase from the base of statue to the crown. But after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Interior Department, which runs the nation’s national parks, closed the statue down entirely.
On Aug. 3, 2004, Liberty Island was reopened to tourists along with the museum inside the statue’s pedestal. But they were no longer allowed to climb the stairs to the crown. The Sept. 11 attacks underscored fundamental safety issues inside the statue. With access to the crown limited to just one spiral staircase with a handrail on just one side, rapid evacuation of the statue’s interior in the event of any kind of emergency was impossible.
Salazar said each group will be individually escorted to the crown by a national park ranger and then back down before the next group ascends.
How tourists may apply for the tour to the top remains to be worked out.
Salazar, a former U.S. senator from Colorado and a member of a Hispanic family that originally settled in what is now New Mexico 400 years ago, had announced his desire to reopen the statue to the public when he was appointed Secretary of the Interior in January. A number of members of Congress, including New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, have been pushing to reopen the statue’s crown.
Making trips to the crown available again is expected to give a much-needed boost to New York’s tourist industry.
“The secretary hopes the reopening of the crown will encourage people to come to New York, and to travel the country in general to see our nation and help boost our economy,” an Interior Department spokesperson said in a statement to TODAY. “He definitely hopes this announcement helps inspire people to come see New York. And not only the Statue of Liberty, but also Ellis Island is just as important in his eyes. He wants both of these landmarks to be renovated and fully accessible for visitors to visit and appreciate.”