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NYC fireworks highlight US Independence Day events

FIREWORKS burst into the night sky above New York with a kaleidoscope of colors shooting 1,000 feet (300 meters) into the air on an Independence Day that began with the Statue of Liberty's crown opening to the public for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001.

It was American's biggest fireworks display, with more than 22 tons of pyrotechnics exploding yesterday over the Hudson River, a new vantage point for New York's festivities. Millions of spectators watched from both sides of the river.

Among them were Gamalat Bayoumy and his wife, Mosad Mohamad - food cart vendors who work near the river and ended up watching the fireworks sitting on a crate and a broken chair in the doorway of a car wash. In their 50s with family in Egypt whom they help, the couple lost an estimated US$1,000 in business when police asked them to shut down because of swelling crowds.

"This is very nice, very good," Bayoumy said, "but we're losing money in America."

However, his wife added, "America is free. We have green cards and we dream to become Americans."

While the recession forced many communities to scale down, or even cancel, their fireworks, "we're a country of survivors and fighters, and we try to make things work," said Gary Souza, whose family-owned, California-based company staged the New York display as well as hundreds of others across the country - including the nation's capital.

In Washington, the daylong celebrations started with a parade along Constitution Avenue and ended with fireworks over the Washington Monument as a band played a medley of patriotic music.

President Barack Obama, speaking to military families at the White House, told the service members they were "the latest, strongest link in that unbroken chain that stretches back to the Continental Army."

Vice President Joe Biden spent the Fourth of July in Iraq, presiding over a naturalization ceremony for 237 US troops from 59 countries. He had lunch with the 261st Theater Tactical Signal Brigade from Delaware, to which his son, Beau, belongs.

Former President George W. Bush spoke amid thunderous applause in rural Woodward, Oklahoma, calling the US the "greatest nation on the face of the earth." He thanked members of the military for their service, and thanked spectators for giving "a retired guy something to do."

In Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, the city held a parade through the Old City neighborhood for the first time in 18 years. Descendants of the Declaration's signers gathered at the Liberty Bell, and a spectacular fireworks show went off over the Museum of Art.

Yesterday morning in Boston, with its rich Revolutionary War history, the Navy's oldest commissioned warship performed its annual turnaround in the harbor. The USS Constitution - "Old Ironsides" - marked the day by firing a 21-gun salute, the highest maritime honor, followed by 19 volleys.

Yesterday evening, Bostonians filled the banks of the Charles River for a free Boston Pops concert featuring Neil Diamond.

And on Brooklyn's Coney Island, an iconic Fourth of July event - Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest - was won yesterday afternoon by Joey Chestnut, who chomped down a record 68 dogs.

In New York, Manhattan's West Side Highway was closed to traffic so pedestrians could view the fireworks, with three lanes packed so tightly with people stretched out on blankets and beach chairs that it was difficult to move. Across the river, Frank Sinatra's hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey, had one of the best views, facing the heart of the barge lineup in the Hudson against the Manhattan skyline for "one of the biggest and best shows we've ever put together," said Souza.

The celebration returned to Manhattan's West Side for the first time since the 9/11 attacks. The extravaganza was expanded this year with more than 44,000 shells.

David Khedher, 25, a police officer from Vaxjo, Sweden, was in New York with a childhood friend. He said he has a special feeling for America's Independence Day because his mother had lived through Poland's Solidarity movement that led to democracy and his father is Iraqi-born.

"I'm celebrating your Fourth of July because Americans really know how to do it," said Khedher, who got no closer than two blocks from the Hudson because the crowd was so thick. "It was really cool - like New Year's Eve times ten!"

The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum - a retired World War II aircraft carrier - hosted the live NBC broadcast of the spectacle, featuring the cast of Broadway's "West Side Story" and other stars. The New York Pops orchestra sat on the front open deck of the Intrepid playing both patriotic tunes and new music composed for the occasion.

The festivities turned somber in North Carolina, where authorities said a truckload of fireworks exploded on Ocracoke Island off the coast, killing two workers and critically injuring three. And in central Florida, officials said one person was killed in a lightning strike at a Fourth of July gathering in Lakeland and at least 18 others were taken to hospitals.


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