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, Breder squeezed her eyes shut as tears rolled down her cheeks, and whispered an immediate yes.
"To propose in the crown was perfect," Breder, 25, 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 354 steps to the statue's crown, she sang America the Beautiful and earned the applause of fellow visitors.
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, narrow staircase. They are guided by park rangers along the way.
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.
The statue, 305 feet tall to the tip of its raised torch, was designed to mark the 1876 centennial of the Declaration of Independence. It faces the entrance to New York Harbor, welcoming the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," in the words of Emma Lazarus, engraved on a bronze plaque inside the statue.
The torch has been closed since it was damaged by a saboteur's bomb in 1916.
President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cited the spirit of the nation's founders in their Fourth of July radio and Internet broadcasts.
Obama appealed for public support of his domestic programs. Americans need to call on "unyielding spirit" that led earlier generations to explore the West, persevere during the Depression and build a robust industrial economy to revamp the education system, overhaul health care and switch to clean energy, he said.
In the GOP weekly address, McCain said the United States has a moral obligation to publicly denounce the Iranian government and to show "we stand with the millions of Iranians who brave batons, imprisonment and gunfire to have their voices heard and their votes counted."
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama returned from Camp David in time to host the Independence Day celebration at the White House. The Obamas invited about 1,200 military families for the festivities. Saturday was also daughter Malia Obama's 11th birthday.
Bush cheered: Former President George W. Bush drew thunderous applause in Woodward, Okla., a rural town of 12,000, as he celebrated the Fourth of July, calling the United States the "greatest nation on the face of the earth." Bush was given six standing ovations at a remodeled rodeo arena. About 9,200 tickets were sold for the event, and ranged from $25 to $500 for the "Oval Office Ticket" in the first rows, close to Bush, with VIP parking and complimentary beverages. Promoter Landon Laubhan declined to say how much Bush was getting paid to speak.
Fireworks kill workers: Two workers were killed and three others critically injured when a truckload of fireworks exploded Saturday morning on a remote North Carolina island dock as they were preparing for an Independence Day celebration, authorities said. The blast shook homes and businesses, and was heard across a village on the southern end of Ocracoke Island, the only inhabited part of the 15-mile spit of land.