- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Hundreds of thousands of people, undeterred by grueling heat, humidity and strong thunderstorms, converged on the Mall yesterday to show their patriotism and celebrate the country’s 230th birthday.

Stretched out on blankets under small tents, beneath trees and equipped with American flags, sunscreen, water and food, people from across the country agreed that spending the Fourth of July in the nation’s capital simply cannot be beat.

Perched on a lawn chair near the U.S. Capitol, Mike Hernandez, 56, of Miami waited in line to get close to the stage where pop stars and the National Symphony Orchestra performed in recognition of the America’s independence.

For Mr. Hernandez, who was born in Cuba, the Fourth of July was more than a summer holiday.

“It’s a great country with great opportunities,” said Mr. Hernandez, who became a U.S. citizen about 30 years ago after coming to Florida at age 7. “I just want to be part of the festivities, celebrate being free. It’s a nice, patriotic thing to do.”

The daylong celebration had come to an abrupt halt just after 5 p.m., when U.S. Park Police Chief Dwight E. Pettiford ordered the evacuation of the Mall as severe thunderstorms rolled through the area.

“From our assessment, [the evacuation] worked very well,” Chief Pettiford said.

In “Operation Safe Haven,” people were told to take shelter in the Smithsonian museums around the Mall until the storms passed. Within minutes, the National Museum of Natural History was packed with rain-soaked people.

Two hours later, police reopened the 21 checkpoints around the Mall and allowed people to return to the area.

Temperatures had reached 93 degrees by 3 p.m.

At least 200 persons were treated for heat exhaustion after the Independence Day parade near the Mall.

One person was hospitalized, and the rest were treated at the scene by paramedics for injuries related to the 90-degree heat, said Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. fire department. Most of the patients were parade participants, he said.

“This happens every year, though not to this degree,” Mr. Etter said.

Tens of thousands endured the hot, humid conditions to watch the parade, the “Capitol Fourth” concert at the Capitol and the fireworks display. Officials do not provide crowd estimates during events, but many people likely were waiting to come out until temperatures cooled in the evening, said Sgt. Scott Fear of the U.S. Park Police.

People stayed upbeat, despite the heat and the humidity.

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