NEW YORK -- Erica Breder, a first-generation American, stood mesmerized inside the Statue of Liberty's crown. Out one window, the statue's massive arm and golden torch rose above her. Hundreds of feet below early Saturday, the blue, sparkling waters of New York Harbor stretched to infinity. On the floor beside Breder, was her . . . boyfriend?
"Will you be my wife?" Aaron Weisinger of Danville, Calif., asked softly, sweat beading on his head as he balanced on one knee in the uncomfortably narrow space. "Yes," a stunned Breder whispered without hesitation. They kissed. A lot.
Only then did Breder notice that the couple was alone in the crown, which had reopened to visitors just minutes earlier after being shuttered since the Sept. 11 attacks.
In the annals of marriage proposals, Weisinger's must rank among the most hard-won. Like hundreds of thousands of other people, he tried desperately to score two of the limited tickets to visit the crown when they went on sale June 13, a few weeks after the secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, announced plans to reopen it.
Only last week did Weisinger get his tickets, along with another two for a couple of friends who blocked the top of the winding stairway to give him the time -- and space -- to kneel properly and ask Breder for her hand.
"It's a very small spot," Weisinger said later as he and Breder emerged from the statue hand in hand after being in the first group of 30 visitors to climb all 354 steps to the crown. All 30 were given green foam Statue of Liberty crowns to wear as they made the laborious climb. All bore cameras. Some toted children. One woman brought her inhaler, and used it. Weisinger carried a diamond ring.
Advocates of the reopening and visitors said it was a sign of the United States' and New York's efforts to put behind fears of the past and celebrate a new era by making it possible once again for people to go up the country's most famous symbol of liberty. From the crown's small windows, people can look out at the pathway that carried immigrant-laden ships into America and unloaded 12 million people, including Weisinger's great grandparents, onto Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954.
"It really represents an inclusiveness, to be able to perceive the world through Miss Liberty's crown," said Jennifer Stewart, who was dressed as the Statue of Liberty, sporting green-painted skin and carrying green-tinged items in her green handbag.
Stewart won a national Statue of Liberty look-alike contest in 1986, for the monument's centennial, and since then has made her living traveling the world appearing as Miss Liberty. "Symbolically, this is so remarkable in terms of our psyche," she said of the crown's reopening.
The decision to reopen the crown was seen as part of President Obama's effort to move away from the Bush administration's post- 9/11 attitudes, which critics said hardened outsiders to America and tarnished the country's image as a welcoming beacon.
The entire statue was closed to the public after the attacks and remained shut until 2004, when visitors were permitted to enter the pedestal and gaze at the view from its base. National Parks officials said the statue remained closed because the cramped double-helix stairway did not meet fire safety standards, a concern underscored by the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, 2001, when hundreds of people died trying to make their way down the stairs.
The statue's stairway is about 19 inches wide, making it virtually impossible to turn back once you're on the way up because of the inevitable line of people snaking their way up behind you. The decision to reopen came after higher handrails were added and new security rules were imposed. Now, just 10 people at a time will be allowed into the crown, and visitors must clear stringent, airport-like security procedures that include passing through sensors designed to detect explosives.
This did not deter the July 4 visitors, most of whom said they had booted up their computers the day the $15 tickets went on sale and clicked "refresh" over and over until they found available spots.
For some, like Chris Bartnick of Merrick, N.Y., it was a chance to show their children a spectacular sight they had once enjoyed. "It was something I did when I was a kid. Hopefully it's something she'll do with her kids," said Bartnick, who took his 8-year-old daughter, Aleyna, to the crown.
Then there was Weisinger. The 26-year-old said he and his fiancee, who met as children but did not begin dating until three years ago, have always loved July 4.
They had planned to be in New York on the holiday anyway, and Weisinger saw the proposal plan as a means of paying tribute to their families' histories. His great grandparents first laid eyes on the Statue of Liberty as they sailed into New York Harbor as immigrants from Eastern Europe. Breder's parents also immigrated from Eastern Europe.
Weisinger said he even sent letters and e-mails to Obama and various state and local politicians in his drive to get tickets, before eventually landing some. Then, it was a question of explaining his intentions to his friends and arranging for them to block the stairs for a few moments while the engagement was sealed.
In a rarity for New York, there were no yells of "Get moving!" from the stalled visitors as they waited on the tiny steps, some too narrow to place a full adult foot. Instead, they stood quietly before erupting in applause after the couple's lingering smooch.