- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

NEW YORK — Nearly 1 million revelers rang in 2004 with the dropping of the traditional New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square — a joyous, confetti-filled bash that took place under some of the tightest security ever seen.

With snipers posted on rooftops and helicopters patrolling overhead, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his guest of honor, former Iraq prisoner of war Shoshana Johnson, pressed a small globe, sending the 1,070-pound crystal ball on a 60-second drop that culminated at the stroke of midnight.

“It was brilliant. Everyone was so worried about everything, and now everything is good,” said Tanya Starkin, a 23-year-old waitress from Ireland, as fireworks lit up the New York sky.

The invoking of Orange Alert, second only to Red Alert, prompted towns and cities across the country to strengthen police patrols, order aerial surveillance and activate technology to detect chemical, biological or radiological contamination.

In the District, the heightened security, including the addition of surveillance cameras to the city’s permanent 14-camera network, did not keep partygoers out of the District or discourage First Night revelers in Annapolis, Alexandria and Leesburg.

The clubs of Adams Morgan, Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria were crowded with revelers, encouraged by last night’s mild weather.

“It’s wonderful,” said 28-year-old Rebecca Valois, who was in Alexandria, which had a 34-stage alcohol-free street party with bands, puppet shows and a children’s choir. “It’s not freezing and no umbrellas.”

“It’s just pint-sized fun,” said Paula Hansen, who was in Alexandria with husband Todd and their children, 18-month-old Julia and Jordon, 5.

The Metropolitan Police Department and Alexandria police reported no major party-related incidents as of early last night. Metro police joined federal and other law-enforcement officials in a joint command center.

Organizers of the Times Square party, the nation’s largest and most-watched, said last night’s celebration drew more than the 750,000 people who watched last year as a giant Waterford crystal ball dropped at the stroke of midnight.

“You can’t let them spoil the party, right?” said Mike Riley of Huntsville, Ala., who was among the first to show up to claim a place in Times Square yesterday morning. “Everybody in the world watches it on television, and since I was little, I wanted to be in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.”

“We’ve never had a crowd this size before,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “It’s a dangerous world we live in, and we have to adjust to that, but that doesn’t mean the terrorists are going to keep us [from] going about our business.”

Metal detectors were brought in, manhole covers were sealed, and mailboxes, trash cans and newspaper boxes were banished. Police readied seven helicopters to patrol above the crowd and assigned more officers to be on duty this year than last, though they declined to give numbers.

“We know that New York remains at the top of the terrorists’ target list and we have to remain vigilant,” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said.

New York-born singer Cyndi Lauper took the stage to lead the revelers, many of whom were wearing bright orange hats and waving red balloons, in a singalong of tunes from her latest album.

Safety concerns did little to keep partygoers away. Dozens of cordoned areas were packed with revelers by early evening, and police were directing crowds blocks north of Times Square.

Many revelers had more mundane concerns than terrorism. Akiko Shiraishi, 21, a Japanese student at a college in South Carolina, said she and her friends were “much more worried about the bathroom” than security.

However, last night, FBI and Homeland Security Department officials kept a just-landed British Airways jet several hundred feet from the terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport. They detained passengers for about three hours.

There were reports that the quarantine of the London-originated flight was related to the recent increase in the U.S. terror-alert status, but the FBI said the detention was not the result of a terrorism threat.

Across the world, people celebrated according to local custom. U.S. troops in northern Iraq fired mortars and missiles to welcome the new year as celebrating Iraqis in Baghdad sent tracer bullets flashing across Baghdad’s sky. Still, the new year was marred by an attack on a Baghdad restaurant that killed five Iraqis.

Celebrations were happier in the first countries to welcome in 2004. In Australia, Sydney’s famous harbor was alight with colorful fireworks, and thousands of New Zealanders waved glow sticks in public squares. Still, a tactical response team scoured the streets of Sydney.

Besides the United States, security was tightest in Britain and Israel. At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II gave thanks for 2003 and prayed for world peace in 2004 during a vespers service at St. Peter’s Basilica.

In Las Vegas, the FBI checked hotel and airline records against terrorist watch lists in advance of a New Year’s Eve celebration expected to draw 300,000 people.

“People can take comfort that anything and everything that can be done is being done,” said FBI spokesman Todd Palmer, who said checks had not turned up a specific threat against the city.

Las Vegas police posted sharpshooters on hotel-casino rooftops, concrete barricades closed off certain routes, and backpacks and bags were routinely searched.

The Federal Aviation Administration banned flights, except for scheduled commercial flights, over Manhattan and Las Vegas for several hours during last night’s celebrations.

Crowds gathered early yesterday in Pasadena, Calif., for today’s 115th annual Rose Parade amid unprecedented security. Parade goers staked out spots for a curbside sleepover as law-enforcement officers — many of them undercover — fanned out along the route.

Tim Tussman, 46, of Grantsburg, Wis., took his girlfriend, Becky Melin, 45, to see the parade as a belated birthday gift. “It’s an obvious target, but you hope they’ve taken all that into account,” he said. “As a gardener, she loves flowers. We weren’t going to miss it.”

Officials canceled a street party in downtown Los Angeles, citing security concerns. In invoking Orange Alert, federal officials said the Islamist terrorist organization al Qaeda might be plotting an attack on large gatherings during the Christmas season.

Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, urged revelers not to attend New Year’s Eve celebrations, particularly the one in Times Square. Mr. Shays, a member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security and chairman of a terrorism subcommittee, told a Manhattan TV interviewer that he wouldn’t go to Times Square “for anything.”

Mr. Bloomberg, thoroughly miffed, said Mr. Shays could “learn a little bit about courage” from Miss Johnson, briefly a prisoner of war in Iraq.

Elsewhere, terrorism fears put nary a dent in the festivities.

In New Orleans, 40,000 to 50,000 people were expected to watch the lowering of a giant, grinning papier-mache baby in the French Quarter at midnight.

In Boston, up to 1.5 million visitors were expected to attend the “First Night” arts festival, featuring concerts, a Mardi Gras-style parade and fireworks. Elaborate ice sculptures planned as the celebration’s centerpiece had to be dismantled because of unseasonably warm weather in the 40s.

• Staff writer Judith Person contributed to this report.

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