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Fireworks and sharpshooters welcome 2004 new york { January 1 2004 }

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January 1, 2004
Fireworks and Sharpshooters Welcome 2004

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 Military helicopters and sharpshooters joined fireworks and noisemakers on Wednesday in welcoming the New Year in the nation's largest celebrations.

A higher terror alert, issued on Dec. 21 by the Department of Homeland Security, generated the tightest New Year's security controls since 2000, when fears of millennium chaos and terrorism prompted Seattle and Las Vegas to scale back their celebrations sharply.

This year, festivities across the country cautiously proceeded, though with random vehicle checks, modified aircraft flight paths and thousands of police officers working overtime.

Government officials performed a delicate public dance during television and radio appearances on Wednesday, publicizing their heightened security measures as if to comfort and, implicitly, to caution the millions of people planning to flock to urban centers.

"I think the level of security this time around within the United States is absolutely unprecedented," Tom Ridge, the homeland security secretary, said in an interview on CBS's "Early Show."

The highest security was focused on the most public celebrations: Times Square in New York City, the Las Vegas Strip and the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

The Department of Homeland Security deployed unarmed Black Hawk helicopters and Cessna Citation jets over each of the cities. The helicopters were intended to intercept aircraft that violated federal flight restrictions put into place above those three cities.

Officials in Las Vegas debated whether to cancel a 20-minute fireworks display normally performed on New Year's Eve. The fireworks were canceled in 2000 because of security concerns, but that did little to dissuade hundreds of thousands of people from flooding the Las Vegas Strip. Instead, some in the crowd complained that the city had been shown up by other celebrations.

"With fireworks or no fireworks, roughly the same amount of people are going to be on the Strip, so let's give them a party," said Billy Vassiliadis, the chief executive of R&R partners, which handles the marketing for the city of Las Vegas.

Nonetheless, officials in Las Vegas have taken a number of security precautions recently amidst swirling rumors which they have denied that the city had been identified as a terrorist target.

Police planned to close the Strip to vehicles from 6:30 p.m. Wednesday to 3 a.m. Thursday. The city pulled in nearly 2,000 police officers and 600 jail guards from around the state to coordinate with some 5,000 security guards employed by local hotels. The Las Vegas F.B.I. office also drew in another 25 agents to complement the 90 agents based there.

In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed a highly restrictive no-fly zone for a 23-mile radius around the city.

At Times Square, where as many as 750,000 celebrators were expected, visitors were subjected to radiation scans and metal detectors. As in years past, manhole covers were welded shut as a precaution against hidden explosives. The streets were stripped of all garbage cans, mailboxes and newspaper boxes. Snipers were stationed on rooftops, and security was stepped up at landmarks, bridges, tunnels and the New York and New Jersey ports.

In Pasadena, where hundreds of thousands of spectators are expected to gather for the five-mile long parade on Thursday, only certain flights were to be allowed from 6 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. over the parade grounds. In addition, all flights will be banned over the Rose Bowl during the football game later Thursday between the University of Southern California and the University of Michigan.

Pasadena planned to bring in 1,000 officers from the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, the California Highway Patrol and the Irvine Police Department in Orange County.

Even those landmarks not known for attracting New Year's revelers received extra protection. The Sears Tower in Chicago and the monuments in Washington, D.C., all received extra police officers. The Capitol Hill police have also started random vehicle checks as a result of the higher terror alert.

In a way, a culture of low-key celebrating was a benefit for some cities, including Washington, officials said.

"There isn't one big central event or two big central events in the city," said Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, Washington's deputy mayor, who handles security. "Fourth of July is our big day."

Indeed, elsewhere in the country, police seemed less focused on terrorist threats than with traditional New Year's problems, like drunken driving and people firing guns into the air.

"We get hundreds of calls on that," said Bill Robinson, a spokesman for the San Diego police.

In Chicago, where a 67-year-old woman was wounded by stray celebratory gunfire one year ago, a similar warning was issued. Phil Cline, the police superintendent, said there would be no tolerance of firing guns into the air in celebration.

"We want people to ring in the new year with toasts and hugs, not guns and bullets," Mr. Cline said.

Chris Dixon in California, David Bernstein in Chicago and Shaila K. Dewan in New York City contributed reporting for this article.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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