U.S. might reopen Statue of Liberty's crown

The National Park Service is inching closer to reopening the Statue of Liberty's crown for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks by seeking ways to make access safer.

The park service is seeking bids from engineers and architects to study whether alterations to the crown would make it safer for visitors to evacuate in case of an emergency. The crown is currently accessible only by a narrow, double-helix-shaped staircase that is not in compliance with federal, state or city fire and building codes. The issue of whether the stairway was ever in compliance was not raised publicly until after 9/11.

If changes to the statue are not practical, the park service would look for other ways of minimizing the dangers, possibly by limiting the number of visitors.

The park service acknowledged it was considering reopening the crown after Representative Anthony Weiner released a copy of the agency's request for proposals. Weiner said Friday at a news conference that the off-limits crown was an ''embarrassment'' to the city and demonstrated a ''lack of creativity and imagination'' on the part of the park service. Weiner, a New York Democrat, helped arrange a congressional hearing on reopening the crown.

''Something that many of us remember from our youth - going up those narrow stairwells, getting up on our tippy-toes, looking out through the crown to one of the most glorious vistas you can imagine,'' Weiner said. ''That experience has been denied to visitors now for seven Fourth of Julys.''

As possible solutions, Weiner suggested caps on the number of visitors, strict height and weight guidelines and requiring visitors to sign waivers acknowledging the risks.

Liberty Island was closed to the public after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The statue's base reopened in 2004 after a $20 million effort to improve fire safety, security and evacuation routes. But the crown stayed closed because the park service said it posed a potentially catastrophic hazard to visitors.

The decision to look at the feasibility of reopening the crown came in response to a request by Congress at the September hearing, David Barna, a spokesman for the park service, said Friday. He said the park service wanted to have a study on reopening the crown completed by January.

Advocates who have sought the reopening praised the decision but said they hoped the park service would find a way to open the crown before any renovations were completed - a move the park service said it was not considering.

Alexander Brash, the northeast regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, said, ''We think it is high time to open the crown, and certainly by next Independence Day at the very latest.'' He added, ''The more people who can experience it, the more awe-inspiring their visit to the statue, the better.''

When the roughly 10 flights of steps leading to the crown from the pedestal were open to the public, park rangers regularly dealt with visitors with problems including heat exhaustion, panic attacks and claustrophobia, according to a park service statement. The park service said the stairs were originally intended to be used by maintenance workers.

The statement, issued Friday, noted that the statue's creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, never envisioned visitors climbing to the crown.

Critics of closing the crown have said that it has hurt the economy by reducing tourism at the statue. Weiner said that the number of visitors in 2006 was 2.5 million, down from 3.6 million visitors in 2000. The park service said Friday, however, that about 3.2 million people visited the statue last year and that it expected to see even more this year.