Thursday, July 5, 2007

Fireworks exploded above the Washington Monument right on schedule last night, taking no pause after an early evening of thunderstorms and threat of tornados.

Crowds oohed and ahhed as bursts of red, white and blue and a rainbow of other colors exploded into the night sky to celebrate the nation’s 231st birthday.

“A star,” shrieked 7-year-old Amber Maisey, as she watched, wide-eyed and perched atop her father Michael Maisey’s shoulders.

The Philadelphia family was among many who stopped in their tracks along the Mall’s gravel walkways when the first drumroll-like pops sounded from above.

People snapped pictures with digital cameras and cell phones as stars and smiley faces took shape among the colorful flashes.

The finale featured rapid explosion after explosion, accompanied for those on the West Lawn of the Capitol by the National Symphony Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”

Two members of the crew who put on the fireworks were injured after the show was over, when leftover fireworks exploded while they were working, said Sgt. Robert Lachance, a U.S. Park Police spokesman.

Nobody else was injured.

The two men, ages 42 and 46, were working in the fire pit. One was taken by helicopter to a hospital with burns. The other was being treated and evaluated on the scene.

Severe weather forced a two-hour evacuation of the Mall, but it didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits.

John and Alice Martin of Fort White, Fla., were decked out in red, white and blue, American-flag patterned polo shirts and matching hats.

The couple brought their 10-year-old adopted son, Matthew, to see his first fireworks in Washington.

“It’s the only place on Earth to be,” said Mrs. Martin, 59. “Wherever I am, I always feel like I’m in the wrong place if it’s not D.C.”

At about 2:30 p.m., the National Weather Service issued a tornado watch until 10 p.m. for the District and parts of Maryland and Virginia. Parts of Montgomery and Fairfax counties were under separate tornado watches that ended earlier in the evening.

Park Police closed the security checkpoints on the Mall at 5 p.m. and told everyone to leave as dark clouds gathered and winds picked up. Thousands scurried to nearby museums and government buildings to wait out the storm.

Sgt. Lachance called the evacuation calm and orderly. It did not hamper security efforts, he said, because it was built into the security plan.

Hundreds of people — many toting blankets, coolers and lawn chairs — packed into the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. Some browsed the collections while others sat along the walls.

Pam Lewitzke, 47, was visiting from Chicago with her family for her first fireworks display in the District.

“We were sitting on the Mall, and they made everyone go inside,” said Mrs. Lewitzke, who was with her husband and four children in the museum’s darkened basement. The Lewitzkes arrived on the Mall at noon and staked out a prime spot near the Washington Monument. They had to pack their blankets, chairs and food to seek shelter but said they planned to reclaim their seats.

“The shelter in place program worked exactly as planned,” said National Park Service spokesman Bill Line. “The evacuation of the Mall went well, peacefully, calmly. There was no panic or rushing.”

The scene was reminiscent of last year, when a downpour arrived at about at the same hour.

The Lewitzkes were among the thousands who had arrived as early as 10 a.m. and passed through one of 19 security checkpoints where law-enforcement officials searched their belongings before granting them access to the fenced-in perimeter.

John Marshall, 27, and Kim Sitarski, 25, of Baltimore, also had to give up spots they had snagged at 3 p.m. near the monument. The pair perused various collections in the gallery to pass the time before their first tip to the Mall fireworks.

“We’ll stick it out,” Mr. Marshall said.

A heavy police presence was visible, as helicopters circled overhead and police patrolled the grounds on horseback, bicycle, motorcycle and foot, in the wake of a terrorist attack in Scotland and a foiled bombing plot in London last week.

After the rain subsided, officials reopened checkpoints about 7 p.m., and crowds returned to a dampened and muddied Mall.

Bruce Buhler, 57, was able to reclaim a seat close to his family’s original spot near the monument, where they had plopped down at 2:30 p.m.

“In our hometown in central California, we’d go to outdoor displays, so this is just a bigger scale — the nation’s celebration,” Mr. Buhler said. “It’s tradition. It’s a way to celebrate our collective heritage and celebrate the birth of our country.”

The rain spared the annual Independence Day Parade, which took place earlier in the day on Constitution Avenue in Northwest.

Thousands of people lined the sidewalks for the parade, which featured balloons, floats, dancers and military bands. The parade began just before noon under hazy skies.

One thing that was out of the ordinary but welcomed was the temperatures, which stayed in the mid-80s, and a cool breeze rather than the more normal sticky humidity and temperatures in the 90s.

Crowds also lined the sidewalks outside the fenced in grounds of the U.S. Capitol for “A Capitol Fourth,” the National Symphony Orchestra’s annual concert, hosted this year by actor Tony Danza and featuring a tribute to “West Side Story” on its 50th anniversary.

Metro officials reported more than 448,000 rail riders by 10 p.m., close to last year’s total.

For the third year, the District conducted a test of its emergency evacuation plan after the fireworks display.

Operation Fast Forward adjusts the timing of traffic lights along main roads out of the city that would be needed as emergency evacuation routes.

The plan was tweaked this year, and the changed signals were to be in effect for 45 minutes.

Crowds slowly began filing away from the Mall and Capitol almost immediately after the fireworks ended at 9:30 p.m., heading toward L’Enfant Plaza and other Metro stations in the area.

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

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