The National Park Service of the US has said that it has no intention of reopening the Statue of Liberty’s crown, which has been closed since the 11 September attack. Federal officials said that public access to the top of the statue would pose a potentially catastrophic fire hazard.

“Our primary concerns about public access to the Statue of Liberty’s crown are safety and health concerns, not terrorism," Daniel N. Wenk, deputy director of the park service, said at a congressional hearing on the subject, the first in the six years the crown has been closed.

The Statue of Liberty

Liberty Island was closed to the public after the 11 September attacks. The statue’s base reopened to the public on 3 August 2004, after a $20 million (approx. Rs81 crore) effort to improve fire safety, security and evacuation routes. The park service faced criticism for delays in reopening the base and for relying heavily on a private group, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, to raise money for the project. Wenk said the statue’s creator, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, “never intended or designed the Statue of Liberty as something to enter or climb". Only after it opened in 1886 did the war department—the predecessor to the defense department—begin letting “curiosity seekers" inside the sculpture, Wenk said. The statue’s torch was closed in 1916.

When the park service began administering the statue in 1933, Wenk said, there were less than 200,000 visitors. Last year, more than 2.5 million people visited Liberty Island. The crown of the statue is accessible only by a very narrow, spiral staircase with a low guard rail.

The staircase does not meet any local, state or federal fire and building codes. Even for people in peak physical condition, climbing the 12-storey-high staircase is a challenge, he said, adding: “A key danger is that once a visitor begins the climb, turning back before reaching the crown is nearly impossible. Each person is blocked by hundreds of people in front and behind."

Wenk even invoked several catastrophic fires in the past—at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1911, the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston in 1942, and the Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, in 2003—to argue that the federal government must put public safety first.

Short of building a 22-storey tower with a new staircase next to the statue “and cutting through the Statue of Liberty’s copper skin to build a bridge" to the tower, there is no way to provide a safe exit from the statue’s interior consistent with fire and building codes, Wenk said. He called such a tower an “unacceptable option". Advocacy groups that have called for reopening the crown did not appear to be persuaded by Wenk’s arguments. Alexander Brash, the North-East regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement that “Americans should have the right to visit every nook and cranny of our National Park System." Wenk said the park service was focused on improving the educational value of visits to the statue. About 22 % of visitors to the statue now participate in parks programmes that discuss the statue’s history, compared with less than 3% before 2001, he said.

Wenk did not rule out the possibility that the statue could be declared exempt from fire and building codes and that the crown could be reopened to small groups of visitors on a limited basis, a possibility that several lawmakers have raised.