May 8, 2009 / 11:53 AM / in 8 years

Statue of Liberty's crown to re-open July 4

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<p>The Statue of Liberty stands in New York harbor on an unseasonably warm spring day, April 28, 2009.Lucas Jackson</p>

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Statue of Liberty's crown, closed to the public since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, will reopen on July 4, U.S. Independence Day, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said on Friday.

At a news conference at the site, Salazar said the statue was a symbol of American values and reopening it on Independence Day would be a "great birthday present for the American people."

"We will protect the people, we will protect the place," Salazar vowed, announcing a $25 million grant from federal stimulus funds for the Statue of Liberty and the historic immigration center on the adjacent Ellis Island.

He said a maximum of 10 people would be able to occupy the crown at any time, allowing for 30 visitors an hour, or 50,000 a year in the initial phase. A lottery will choose who will go to the crown.

"As we move forward and make additional improvements, we will move up to about 100,000 people a year," Salazar said.

A symbol of freedom and democracy and a prominent draw for tourists, the statue was one of the first sights seen by millions of immigrants who arrived in New York harbor in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The statue was closed to the public after the September 11, 2001 attacks because of safety concerns. The museum gallery and observation deck at the landmark's base were reopened to the public in 2004, but access beyond that point remained prohibited.

The National Park Service closed the crown because access to the top of the statue, which depicts a robed woman holding a torch, is limited to a narrow stairwell with a handrail on one side. In the event of an emergency, there is no quick exit.

While the number of visitors to Lady Liberty, a gift from France in 1886, has fallen in the past eight years, numbers are rising again.

About 3.2 million people visited the statue in 2007, up from 2.5 million in 2006 but below the 3.6 million in 2000, the park service said.

Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko and Claudia Parsons, editing by Alan Elsner

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