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Activists raise private funds to re-open Statue of Liberty to public | (KRT) NEW YORK For strong-legged tourists who had their hearts set on climbing to the top of one of the nation's most iconic landmarks, the small white sign is like a "Dear John" letter from Lady Liberty.

"At this time, there is no entry inside the pedestal, museum, or the Statue of Liberty," reads the neatly printed placard posted in front of the entrance to the 117-year-old monument. "This is due to ongoing safety improvements. Due to the nature of the work, no reopening time has been given."

National Park Service officials hope that sometime next year, the bronze doors at the base of the statue will open to admit visitors for the first time since they were shut on Sept. 11, 2001. More than two years after the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers, the Statue of Liberty is the only major monument or tourist destination in New York that has not reopened.

"I didn't know it was still closed," said Lisa Williams, 28, of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., who rode the ferry from Battery Park in Manhattan to visit Liberty Island this week with her family.

Although the statue remains closed, Liberty Island and its neighbor, Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants were processed before being allowed to enter the country, reopened in December 2001.

The fact that the statue still is off-limits shows that officials "are scared, that they're afraid it could be a target," Williams said. "It's part of a heightened sense of fear that everyone has."

As part of the effort to reopen the statue, federal officials and a non-profit foundation recently launched a $5 million fundraising campaign to pay for the work that will adapt this symbol of America's openness to immigrants to the less-hospitable realities of a terrorism-tainted age.

Part of the work will enhance security at the island to prevent terrorist attacks. Park service officials are releasing no details about those plans. But the project also aims to make the statue easier to evacuate in case of an emergency.

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Making a speedy exit is a major challenge at the cramped site, which drew 3 million visitors last year, down from a record 5 million in 2000.

The statue stands inside the star-shaped remains of Fort Wood, an early 19th Century redoubt that was constructed to guard the harbor. Massive bronze doors on one side of the fort and a narrow service portal on the opposite side are the only ways in and out. And inside the statue, narrow spiral staircases reach from the base to a claustrophobic observation chamber in Liberty's crown.

"I think there had always been concerns that it was difficult to get people out," said Stephen Briganti, president of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which is leading the fundraising effort. "And Sept. 11 exacerbated that. Not only do we want to protect this most important of national monuments, but we also want to safeguard the visitors who come to see it."

Details of the emergency-exit and other safety improvements are being reviewed and should be announced early next year, according to Briganti, whose foundation raised $87 million to pay for the statue's renovation in time for its centennial in 1986.

As part of the current campaign, American Express has pledged to donate at least $3 million. The financial services company, which helped raise money to pay for construction of the statue's pedestal in the 1880s, will donate 1 cent for every purchase made with an American Express card in December and January.

The company also has commissioned director Martin Scorsese to make a documentary about the statue; it will be shown on the History Channel next month.

In addition, Folgers coffee has pledged $1 million to the campaign. Briganti said the foundation is working to line up other donors but declined to release names. The foundation also is accepting individual donations at its Web site,

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the federal government has spent more than $2 million on such security measures as new airport-style metal detectors at Castle Clinton, the embarkation point at the tip of Manhattan for ferries to Liberty and Ellis Islands.

Congress has appropriated an additional $1 million for annual operating funds at the two sites, for a total of $11 million.

However, park service spokesman Brian Feeney noted, private fundraising always has been important to the statue.

In France, several methods, including a lottery and a fundraising party in the monument's knee, were used to raise the money that allowed sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi to build his 151-foot statue of "Liberty Enlightening the World."

And in the U.S., when fund-raising efforts to pay for the 10-story pedestal lagged, newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World, started a campaign for contributions that netted $100,000.

One of the most important unresolved issues that must be settled before the statue reopens is whether visitors will be allowed again to climb up inside the statue.

Feeney notes that the narrow staircase was built for workers to make repairs to the copper skin and iron skeleton of the monument, not for tourists. Bartholdi never intended the interior to be seen.

"The current experience is the sort of visit Bartholdi envisioned," Feeney said. "As a sculptor, he meant it to be a sculpture that you see from the outside. You come out to the island, you relax, you contemplate the statue's meaning, you enjoy the view of New York Harbor."

Briganti, the foundation head, said visitors should be able to at least view the interior, even if they cannot climb to the crown.

"Safety is our primary goal, and we'll have to see whether it can be done in a safe and secure manner," he said.

For some visitors, access to the inside of the statue is vital to restoring the full feeling of seeing one of America's most stirring sights.

"Being inside the statue adds to the whole experience," said Gordon Williams, 31, a high school chemistry and physics teacher who visited Liberty Island this week with his wife, Lisa. "It adds to the spirituality of it."

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© 2003, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services