Federal shutdown closes Statue of Liberty and other top tourist sites

Veterans tour the World War Two Memorial in Washington
Veterans tour the World War Two Memorial in Washington October 1, 2013. Despite the U.S. government shutdown affecting the site, a barricade was removed to give veterans access to the memorial. Up to one million federal workers were thrown temporarily out of work on Tuesday as the U.S. government partially shut down for the first time in 17 years in a standoff between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans over healthcare reforms. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS) (REUTERS)

NEW YORK — JoAnn Wilson had been planning her trip to the Statue of Liberty since March, when she and a friend booked plane tickets to travel from Seattle to the East Coast. But when they traveled to lower Manhattan Tuesday morning to board a ferry to Liberty Island, the women were met with two major disappointments.

First they were scammed by a man who was selling what they later learned from police were counterfeit tickets to the Liberty Island ferry. Then they saw the signs that the Statue of Liberty was closed until further notice, along with thousands of other national attractions, because of the federal government shutdown. Visitors could still take a $24 cruise to circle the island, but the statue was off limits.

“It’s incredibly disappointing,” Wilson said, adding that she had been vaguely familiar with the looming threat of a government shutdown but didn’t realize it would directly affect a vacation she had planned for months.

Wilson’s frustration was echoed across the country as Americans faced the first full day of the first government shutdown in 17 years. The shutdown came after Congress failed to reach an agreement on a bill to fund operations starting Oct. 1.

“I guess we can hold out hope that maybe they fix this while we are still here, but who wants to bet on that? Neither side down there seems to be interested in working together, and we’re the ones who feel the impact," Wilson said.

The shutdown closed some of the nation’s most popular tourist spots, including the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and the hundreds of national parks around the country. That includes Yosemite in California, which had been set to mark its 123th anniversary on Tuesday.

In Washington, memorials and museums along the National Mall were closed or blocked by barricades, including the Lincoln Memorial. But down the mall, nearly 100 veterans in town from Mississippi to see the World War II Memorial knocked down those barricades and entered the park anyway, as bystanders cheered them on.

The group had traveled to the nation's capital on an "honor flight" that brings veterans to see the World War II Memorial. The trip had been booked months ago, and it was too late to cancel. Shortly before noon, charter buses pulled up and began unloading the veterans — many of whom were in wheelchairs.

“We didn’t come this far not to get in,” one veteran told a reporter for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, as the group slipped through the barricades and into the memorial.

National Park Service police officers who had been staffing the barricade declined to stop the group, and word of the breach quickly became a sensation on Twitter, where some likened it to the 1944 storming of the beach at Normandy — one of the most famous battles of World War II.

Shortly afterward, the National Republican Congressional Committee posted a message on Facebook pegged to the World War II memorial breach. The missive included a photo of the veterans at the memorial tagged with the phrase, "Democrats shut down WWII memorial. Greatest generation storms through anyways." And it asked people to sign their names and emails to show their "support" for the veterans.

In New York, there seemed to be more reporters than tourists near the site where Park Service officials would usually screen tourists for a trip to Liberty Island. But large tour groups still occasionally wandered up — only to see the signs and walk away dejectedly. Nearby, private tour guides tried to sell boat tours around Liberty Island.

There were no park employees around — save for one.

David Luchsinger, the superintendent of Liberty Island and Ellis Island, was spotted milling among the tourists dressed in his park ranger uniform and hat. He had come to talk to tourists, even though he had been furloughed like thousands of other federal employees around the country.

Asked why he was there, Luchsinger said he felt a responsibility to meet people who had made the pilgrimage to see Lady Liberty and try to explain what was happening.

“People keep asking me, ‘Why?’” he said. “For many people, especially our foreign visitors, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, coming here, and it’s just sad that we have to turn people away.”

But he also worried about the impact on his staff — many of whom had never experienced a government shutdown before and live paycheck to paycheck. That was his experience during the shutdown 17 years ago, when he was laid off for three weeks while working at Fire Island National Park and was forced to take a temporary job working at a gas station to support his family.

“I don’t profess to understand this or why this is happening,” he said. “I just hope Congress does their job so that we can do ours.”