NEW YORK (AP) – The Statue of Liberty, hailed once again as “a beacon of hope,” welcomed tourists inside on Tuesday for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks, with hundreds of visitors returning despite warnings of terrorist threats.

In an hour-long reopening ceremony, Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged Americans to visit the statue and demonstrate that the country would never be “coerced into abandoning any symbol of America.”

Free tickets were quickly snapped up for the first trips back inside, with some disappointed visitors left out in the summer heat.

“It’s pretty awesome. It’s a privilege to be here,” said Dennis Wallace of Sheldon, Iowa, who drove 21 hours with his girlfriend and five children to visit the statue. “The announcement of the orange alert will not stop us.”

Visitors found tightened security measures at the 117-year-old national monument, including a new anti-bomb detection device that blasts air into clothing and then checks for particles of explosive residue.

Tourists now can go only as high as the statue’s feet, where they can gaze up through a glass partition at the steel girders bracing the landmark’s hollow interior.

That was good enough for two of the first guests allowed in, Eddie Nataska, 12, of Waldorf, Md., and his grandfather, Ralph.

“It made me feel more American because I understood why the Statue of Liberty is here,” Eddie said after touring the statue. “She lights the way for America.”

The reopening of the pedestal to the public went ahead despite new warnings over the weekend of possible terrorist attacks on financial centers in Manhattan, Newark, N.J., and Washington.

“I’m not afraid,” said Lt. Dario Coleanni, 26, an Italian army officer. He and a friend said they paid a scalper $20 a pop for the normally free tickets to get inside.

“It’s my first time in the U.S.,” he explained. “I’m interested in seeing what’s important in America: the Statue of Liberty.”

The 152-foot robed female figure with spiky crown and upraised torch has stood as the most familiar symbol of America since its arrival in New York Harbor, welcoming millions of immigrants at nearby Ellis Island.

The statue and Liberty Island were closed after Sept. 11; although the island reopened to the public two months later, the statue remained off-limits.

At the reopening ceremony, Bloomberg was joined by Gov. George Pataki, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and CNN anchor Aaron Brown.

“This beacon of hope and liberty is once again open to the public, sending a reassuring message to the world that freedom is alive in New York and shining brighter than ever before,” Pataki said.

The ceremony began with a military choir performing before a color guard carried the American flag to the podium.

Musical performances included a rendition of George M. Cohan’s “It’s a Grand Old Flag” before the crowd rose for the national anthem.

“Whether this is your first visit or one of many, I know this will be a memorable one,” site superintendent Cynthia Garrett told the visitors.

A museum inside the statue’s pedestal relates the site’s history, from its 1886 dedication as a gift from France to its rededication after a major overhaul a century later. An alternative tour allows visitors to stroll the promenade atop the star-shaped former fort on which the statue and its pedestal rise some 30 stories above the harbor.

The tours cost $10 a head for adults and $4 for children.

Officials were hoping the relaxed restriction might bring back tourists to Liberty Island. Visits fell off 45 percent after the 2001 terrorist attack, from 4.5 million a year in 2000 to 2.6 million in 2002.

The statue, made of hammered copper the thickness of two pennies, was closed in 1937 for a year of renovations and underwent another major refurbishing for its centennial in 1986.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the second of two terrorist-hijacked jetliners skimmed low over the statue just seconds before it crashed into the World Trade Center’s south tower.

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AP-ES-08-03-04 2028EDT

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