- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

NEW YORK | The first visitors allowed into the Statue of Liberty’s crown in nearly eight years made the arduous climb Saturday on an Independence Day journey laden with symbolism of freedom, national pride - and for one couple, romance.

Aaron Weisinger, 26, got down on one knee on the crown’s small floor, pulled out a diamond ring and proposed to his girlfriend, Erica Breder. Stunned, she whispered an immediate yes.

“To propose in the crown was perfect,” the 25-year-old Miss Breder said later.

Cheering the Walnut Creek, Calif., couple, fellow visitors also felt the gravity of the occasion.

“I feel the Statue of Liberty represents global unity, a sign that our world must unify,” said Barbara McLean, 57, of Atlanta. After ascending the total of 354 steps to the statue’s crown, she sang “America the Beautiful” to applause from her fellow visitors.

“I think it represents a beacon of hope that, even in difficult times, that dreams can be made,” she said.

The statue was closed to the public after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The base, pedestal and outdoor observation deck were reopened in 2004, but the crown remained off-limits.

The National Park Service says the crown remained closed because the narrow, double-helix staircases could not be safely evacuated in an emergency and didn’t comply with fire and building codes. Tourists often suffered heat exhaustion, shortness of breath, panic attacks, claustrophobia and fear of heights, spokesman Darren Boch said.

New handrails have since been installed to help with the climb, and only 30 people per hour are allowed up the dark, small staircase. They are guided by park rangers.

The first 30 huffed and sweated as they made their way up stairs sometimes too small to fit an entire foot, but most later said the climb wasn’t as bad as they had anticipated.

Mr. Weisinger was drenched in sweat as he reached the top, but not just because of the workout. He had planned for months to propose in a place full of personal significance - his grandparents, immigrants from Eastern Europe, arrived at nearby Ellis Island.

“I was nervous on the way up, but I was trying to hide it by saying it was the hike up,” he said later. He and Miss Breder, who have been together for three years, both teared up after his proposal.

U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat, pushed for years for the crown to be reopened, once calling the decision to close it off “a partial victory for terrorists.”

The reopening “represents some personal vindication,” he said Saturday.

“It’s nice to pat Lady Liberty’s toes. It’s nice to stand and breathe the air on Liberty Island, but you really haven’t lived the experience until you’ve gone up to the crown,” he said. “A lot of Americans are able to see that now.”

Some of the crown’s 25 windows offer a view of the Manhattan skyline, no longer punctuated by the 110-story Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

So far, about 14,500 tickets to the crown have been sold, most of them for visits through the end of August. Tickets currently on sale are for visits in the fall and beyond. Tickets for the July Fourth weekend sold out within hours.

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