- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2003

Area residents and visitors converged on the National Mall yesterday to join Americans around the world, from Baghdad to Baltimore, in celebration of the country’s 227th birthday.

Neither the 90-degree heat nor the high degree of security deterred people from visiting the Mall, as thousands lined D.C. streets to celebrate Independence Day.

“This is the place to be on our nation’s birthday,” said Jim Lyles of Bethesda, a 24-year veteran of the Army Corp of Engineers, including two years in Vietnam. Mr. Lyles and his wife, Shirley, said they come to the District on July Fourth every year.

“This is the greatest form of government anyone has been able to come up with,” Mr. Lyles said. “We need to renew our patriotism and dedication to this country, and this is the place to do it.”

Army Pfc. Ray Thompson, 24, of Fort Riley, Kan., was in the District for the first time with his wife and father-in-law from Italy. He said he was somewhat overwhelmed but glad to see all the symbols of freedom he and his fellow troops have fought to defend.

“I thank God that I am here to celebrate the Fourth,” said Pfc. Thompson, who served for a few weeks in Iraq before being allowed to come home to be with his ailing wife. “I want to honor the other soldiers any way I can.”

With a large number of streets in the District closed, many chose Metrorail to get around yesterday. Officials said that as of 6 p.m., more than 257,000 people had passed through the fare gates, almost 80,000 more than at the same time last year. No major delays or problems were reported.

“A Capitol Fourth,” the annual National Symphony Orchestra concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol, began at 8 p.m., followed by a fireworks display at the Washington Monument.

“We probably do this every year,” said Fernando Padilla of Sterling, Va. Mr. Padilla, who was born and raised in the District, said he, his wife, Karen, and their two daughters get “as close to the monument as possible. Last year, we were close enough to get a little ash from the fireworks on us.”

Security was lighter in many cities — including Washington — compared with last year, when the September 11 terrorist attacks were fresher in many minds.

Baltimore raised its alert status Thursday to its second-highest level, mostly as a practice run, officials said, while the federal terror alert status remained unchanged at yellow, the middle of the five-color scale.

Around the Mall, 19 security checkpoints at entrances and exits were set up. There were no walk-through metal detectors, but police officers used handheld wands.

More than 2,500 uniformed and undercover officers were assigned to monitor the throng.

Lines at the checkpoints moved relatively quickly. The size of the secured area ran from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, which gave visitors plenty of places to go without having to leave and be rescreened by officers.

A few lines for entrance to the Mall moved slower, with some people reporting that it took them 45 minutes to get through.

Barbara Colson of Gloucester, Va., said it took her 30 minutes to move through the line, but she was fine with the wait.

“It’s worth it to be secure,” said Mrs. Colson, who was in town with her grandson and husband. “I don’t mind a little inconvenience.”

Mrs. Colson said that although she felt safe, she was still concerned about the possibility of a terrorist attack.

“I am very aware of my surroundings,” she said. “I’ve been keeping an eye out.”

Hilary Kasbergen of Tulare, Calif., in town for the holiday with her parents and two sisters, said she and her family found the heavy police presence a bit irritating.

“We understand why they are doing it, but it’s annoying,” Miss Kasbergen said.

Others like Andrea Bond of Graceland, Ky., had no concern about security.

“Heck no, never thought of it,” said Mrs. Bond, who was visiting the District with her husband and two children. “[Securitys] doing what they should do, but to me, if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen no matter who’s watching.”

Baltimore’s Emergency Operations Center was activated as part of the city’s elevated-alert status. Mayor Martin O’Malley said it was a precautionary measure because of the fireworks display, an Orioles game downtown and a convention of Pentecostal Church members.

On the Eastern Shore and in the mountains of Western Maryland, many hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns were sold out, as resorts hoped to regain losses from a rainy spring over the holiday weekend.

Recent heavy rains affected some scheduled events in Virginia, such as the annual Fourth of July raft race on the Rappahannock River. The race was postponed until July 19 because of dangerously high water.

But other events in the area went without a hitch. Southwest of Charlottesville, in the Shenandoah Valley, 10 professional hot-air balloonists began the day with a launch into the early morning sky, part of the seventh annual BB&T; Balloon Rally. Money raised by the event will go to Lexington youth programs.

Arlo Wagner and Steve Sexton contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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