This story was originally published in Newsday on July 5, 2009
The special guests were crowned with green foam hats as their swaying ferry approached Liberty Island. Clutching flags and snapping photos, they were greeted by two governors, a mayor and the French ambassador. Then they began their long ascent.
Thirty ticket holders, who by luck or persistence had scored a spot in the first group to climb yesterday, passed through the freshly sliced ribbon and entered the folds of Lady Liberty's skirt.
For the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, visitors were headed to her crown.
Aleyna Bartnick, an 8-year-old from Merrick, knew already that there were 354 steps to the top. As she and her father climbed them, winding their way up the narrow double-helix staircase, they paused occasionally to peer down through the beams.
"This brings back a lot of memories," said Chris Bartnick, 46. "I used to come here when I was a kid.
"See how it's put together?" he said, pointing to a steel beam. "Those are rivets."
Behind them trailed three Swedish travelers, who had nabbed tickets online after clicking on the National Park Service Web site for two hours. Thrilled at the prospect of visiting an iconic landmark at the outset of a seven-week road trip across the United States, they were surprised by the all-star guest list and crush of news photographers.
"The governor, the mayor ... and we Swedes!" grinned Viktor Voxlin, 21, who had come with two cousins from the village of Alfta.
Another family had driven from Orlando.
Lien and Long Nguyen, who brought their sons David, 19, and Peter, 17, said the Statue of Liberty represented all they could not have in their home country, Vietnam: "Freedom," they said in unison.
The crown was closed in 2001 because the steep, dark staircases - one heading up, the other heading down - could not be safely evacuated in an emergency, and sometimes led to heat exhaustion, claustrophobia and panic attacks.
Now only 30 people per hour are allowed to the top. New metal handrails have been installed, and park rangers guide visitors along the way.
As the first ticket holders trekked upward yesterday, sweat streamed from beneath their green foam crowns. Some stopped on tiny landings to catch their breath.
The Bartnicks waited on the dark staircase as others took in the view, then stepped up into the sunlight.
The small platform, with a row of small windows, held just a handful of people. The panorama, sparkling bright under a nearly cloudless sky, stretched from Manhattan through Brooklyn, across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Staten Island.
Aleyna pressed her face to the glass, and poked her hand out an open window to wave at the tiny people below. Craning her neck, she looked for the seven points on Lady Liberty's crown.
"I can see four!" she said.
Father and daughter, both dressed in red, white and blue, smiled for photographs at the top, and more down below, where Aleyna posed as Lady Liberty, raising a rippling flag in her right hand.