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Happy birthday, America

- 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.

"I think it was very wonderful, very exciting," said Ming Zhang, who was visiting from New York City. He was on the Capitol grounds, camcorder rolling, with his young son, Charles, bouncing on his shoulders.

"We are here to sweat," said Michael Guilfoyle of Jackson, Miss. "We thought it would be a nice place to sweat."

At least four air-conditioned buses were available in the Mall area to help people stay cool. The National Park Service set up several misting tents and provided basic life-support. D.C. paramedics were taking care of the more serious injuries. Doctors also were on hand at some of the seven first-aid tents.

Desiree Ritter, 12, visiting from Arizona, said she "got excited" when she rolled into the District with her parents, Sandy and Jim, both 48.

"She started squealing coming into town," Mrs. Ritter said, as she enjoyed a hot dog from one of the scores of vendors staked out around the Mall. "We went out of our way to come here. We watch our world happen around this place every day on TV. Everyone has to come here at some point. We're free for every one of these religions to be here because we fought wars. I thank God we have the freedoms we have in America."

"It's a time to show our patriotic spirit and a time to be with friends who we had the same experiences with many years ago," said Charles Carter of San Antonio, one of 1,500 members of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association visiting the District yesterday. "I feel very honored to do that and be welcomed by Washington, D.C."

Byron Ball of Ringgold, Ga., retired from teaching a few weeks ago and decided with his wife, Dianne, after church Sunday to travel to the District for the holiday.

"This is something that we just always wanted to do, was be here on the Fourth of July," Mr. Ball said. "We looked at each other, and she said, 'Let's do something crazy.'"

Local residents also enjoyed themselves.

"It's really wonderful," said Lucia Worthington of Alexandria. "It's the multiculturalism, which you can see, and it's the spirit. I just returned to the U.S. [from Canada], and I just love to be with people who appreciate what we stand for."

Those who flocked to the Mall were required to enter through one of the checkpoints where police searched bags. People also were ushered through metal detectors at some of the fenced-in entrances.

"That wasn't bad for us," Mrs. Ritter said. "Disneyland was worse."

The celebration was generally peaceful, with only a handful of arrests and no violence, Sgt. Fear said.

Police arrested at least five persons, two for trying to disrupt a parade on Constitution Avenue. They were charged with failing to obey an order. The activist group Global Exchange identified the two as Geoffrey Millard, 25, an Iraq war veteran, and Chloe JonPaul, 71, a member of the group Code Pink.

The other three arrests were for drug violations.

When it was all over, the process of getting thousands of people out of the District was going well, officials said last night.

As of 11 p.m., Metro had logged almost 430,000 trips, and that was before all of the crowds had left.

The massive crowds prompted police and transportation officials to test an emergency traffic-signal system to help clear city streets quickly.

Sgt. Fear said just after 10 p.m. that traffic was "flowing" and people were spreading out as the events on the Mall came to an end.

The test was conducted along emergency and evacuation routes as a way for officials from the District and surrounding jurisdictions to prepare for a potential emergency evacuation of the city.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.