Resilient New Yorkers Ring in 2003

Times Staff Writer

Under security so tight that even pleasure craft were barred from entering New York's harbor, hundreds of thousands of revelers packed Times Square on Tuesday night for its 99th New Year's Eve celebration.

They came with party hats, horns, noisemakers, brightly colored balloons, flags, cameras and confetti. Many wore eyeglasses with glittering silver frames spelling out 2003.

With hugs, kisses and huge cheers, they marked the birth of 2003 as the traditional ball with 504 shimmering Waterford Crystal triangles descended.

"The best part is being with all the people," said Jessica Stevens, 19, who said she shouted and screamed so much two years ago that she went home hoarse.

"It's the first time I have ever been here," said Corrine Phelan, 17, her friend. "Every year I watch it on television."

Phelan, dressed in a tan sheepskin coat, was asked if she was worried about terrorism. "A little bit," she admitted. "My parents said, 'Be careful.' "

Even before darkness softened Manhattan's skyline, choice viewing spots were full as temperatures in the mid-40s and the promise of ushering in the new year with friends and strangers brought New Yorkers and tourists to the Great White Way.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg urged everyone to have a good time despite concerns about terrorism -- underscored by an intensive search by the FBI for five foreign nationals who entered the United States last week probably from Canada.

"I think you are perfectly safe to go out tonight and go to Times Square," the mayor proclaimed as special sniper teams guarded rooftops and police with metal detectors scanned members of the crowd.

More than 2,000 police officers were on duty in the square and surrounding streets. Manholes were sealed and mailboxes and garbage cans were removed temporarily to prevent hidden bombs. Backpacks were prohibited in the area.

In addition to watching the 1,070-pound ball drop, members of the crowd received tiny bells on wristbands so they could participate in synchronized bell ringing under the leadership of singer Anita Ward.

There was also a mass sing-along stressing togetherness (which was not hard as people were packed shoulder to shoulder) to the tunes of Hoyt Axton's "Joy to the World" and the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love."

One minute before midnight, Christopher Reeve, the star of the movie "Superman" who is paralyzed from the neck down because of a horse-riding accident, held hands with his wife, Dana, as she and the mayor pushed the miniature ball to start the huge crystal ball downward.

"New York and its resilience are a brilliant symbol for the nation," Reeve said.

Fireworks followed after the ball marked 2003. The display was canceled last year in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center.

A blizzard of confetti fell from 13 surrounding buildings.

The Federal Aviation Administration had banned low-flying planes from the Times Square area and from the vicinity of the Statue of Liberty while crews aboard Coast Guard vessels and police launches took special precautions in the harbor.

"There is an uncorroborated report of a threat in the harbor. No more specific information than that," New York's Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at a news conference as people entered Times Square. "In an abundance of caution, the Coast Guard has restricted pleasure craft from coming into the harbor."

Kelly compared the concern over security to general threats that were received before the 4th of July, causing police to increase protection around the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge.

In Washington, Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, labeled Tuesday's threat as "unsubstantiated, uncorroborated and of suspect credibility."

The FBI agreed with the assessment.

"There are rumors abounding everywhere. but we have no information about any maritime attack against New York," an FBI official said.

All the security did not dampen the party.

"It is great to be here in Times Square," said Claudia Hogmon, 21, who is spending a year in the United States from Austria.

"It's fun. It's different," she said. "In Austria, we celebrate like in one room."


Times staff writer Josh Meyer in Washington contributed to this report.

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