The Statue of Liberty will be closed for security upgrades from October 2011, depriving tourists a chance to visit the crown, base and pedestal for up to 12 months.
Visitors to one of New York’s most popular attractions will still be able to visit the park surrounding the statue on Liberty Island but the security upgrade will restrict access to the statue.
Currently, the 354-step spiral staircase leading to the statue’s crown is the only route for both tourists and firefighters responding to emergencies to travel through the structure.
“Given its age and the fact that it is a historic structure and there’s not much we can do to change it, it’s just not going to be 100 percent in line” with the most current safety standards, National Parks Service spokesman Darren Boch told the AP.
Visitors to Lady Liberty will be restricted from entering the statue’s base, pedestal, and crown once the security upgrades begin next year. Tourists will still be allowed to visit the island and spend time on the grounds surrounding the statue, according to Reuters.
On a recent summer day, one tourist put his hands on his knees and gasped for air as a few others funneled down the tightly twisting staircase to the statue’s pedestal. They were covered in sweat.
“It was hot up there,” said Lucie Munier, visiting from France. “I think I would be scared in an emergency, but it is already pretty scary even when it is calm.”
The Statue of Liberty was evacuated last month when a faulty automatic smoke alarm was activated, but there were no injuries. According to Reuters, the parks service had been planning on upgrading the statue for security reasons prior to the incident.
In addition to a fire-proof staircase, the $26 million project will add additional elevators and exits, said David Luchsinger, superintendent of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, according to Reuters.
Most tourists, 3,000 maximum per day, ascend the first 186 steps from the ground up to the pedestal. No more than 10 people at a time are allowed all the way up to the crown, in part so they can be quickly evacuated if necessary.
Though the statue was built in the 1800s before the days of modern fire codes, there isn’t much flammable material inside. Standing 22 stories high, it’s made from steel and copper as thick as two pennies put together. The staircases are metal. The massive pedestal is stone and concrete.
Elevators and electrical equipment that go up to the pedestal were built much later and are equipped with fire sensors like the faulty one that went off July 21; a faulty smoke head was blamed. There are sprinklers throughout the structure. A standpipe carries water to the top.
“For a structure of that age, it’s actually quite well equipped to deal with an emergency,” said Steve Ritea, a Fire Department of New York spokesman.
The fire department keeps a tool shed at Liberty Island. But if a fire alarm sounds, firefighters travel about 20 minutes by boat from a downtown Manhattan firehouse, bringing a hose line and other equipment.
The boat, Marine 1, can pump 50,000 gallons of water per minute, can park alongside the statue, and is equipped with a crane. It can also evacuate tourists if necessary. Other watercraft can respond, and can arrive faster, depending on the extent of the emergency.
The statue is scheduled to close in October 2011, after its 125th anniversary, to create a secondary stairwell down from the pedestal. Right now, tourists go up one side and down another. One elevator is installed for tourists who can’t or don’t want to walk up; firefighters don’t use elevators in emergencies.
The statue was closed after the September 11 terror attacks in 2001. It was reopened in 2004 after the $20 million upgrade.
The crown remained off-limits, mostly because the narrow, double-helix staircase could not be safely evacuated in an emergency and didn’t comply with fire and building codes.
A stairwell to the observation area at the pedestal is forgiving, and air conditioned, with handrails and landings where people can rest of they need to.
From there, those with access to the crown ascend into the statue’s body, where it’s considerably warmer, aided by handrails. The shallow steps are 19 inches wide and taper at one end. Head clearance is just a little more than 6 feet.
The parks service is upfront about the difficulty of the climb to the top, warning that only people who can walk unassisted should even attempt it and should drink water at least 30 minutes beforehand on hot days. Tourists often suffer heat exhaustion, shortness of breath, panic attacks, claustrophobia and fear of heights. However, the crown remains extremely popular. [Statue Of Liberty via Telegraph (UK)]