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RESPONSE TO TERROR

A Guarded New York Welcomes New Year

January 01, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Under the watchful eyes of 7,000 police, some carrying radiation detection devices, more than half a million people crowded into Times Square on Monday night for an emotional New Year's Eve celebration dominated by remembrance of the World Trade Center attacks.

Long before the fabled ball dropped at midnight, bells began ringing at 6 p.m. from churches, synagogues, mosques and homes throughout the city to commemorate those who died Sept. 11.

As the clock inched toward midnight, the faces of firefighters lost in the attack were flashed on a Jumbotron screen above the packed streets, a moment that silenced many in the normally festive, horn-blowing crowd.

"I came to pay my respects to all of these people who died, and also to look ahead to the future," Queens resident Joe Esposito said. "But I should also say: I came here to party."

While the crowd was smaller than the 700,000 who showed up in Times Square for New Year's Eve in 1999, Monday's noisy throng spilled out of special enclosures set up by police on the streets and overflowed onto the sidewalks, creating pedestrian gridlock. On a numbingly cold and windy night, people came from all over the world to ring in the new year--and to show solidarity with the people of New York City--at the country's noisiest party.

"We worry about terrorism, but it is important to be here, to show we care," said Sojin Ahn, a Korean American college student from San Francisco who had just flown in with two friends. "This is the place to be, and to be hopeful. I can't wait for 2002 to arrive."

It also was a night to say goodbye: Shortly after midnight, departing Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani swore in his successor, Michael Bloomberg, and began his new life as a private citizen. The crowd cheered his image as it flashed on a giant screen, then faded from view.

Few in the crowd seemed to mind the bomb-sniffing dogs and the long lines at checkpoints to enter the Times Square area. All through the night, police helicopters swooped over the crowded scene and NYPD sharpshooters quietly patrolled rooftops. Special squads were poised to detect any chemical or biological warfare attack, and the radiation devices held by police officers were intended to detect possible explosions of crude nuclear bombs.

There were no disruptions, and city officials encouraged people to have a good time. Yet the signs of heightened security were everywhere. Police banned backpacks and searched party goers with hand-held wands. The 38-block Times Square area was under heavy guard; hours before crowds arrived police sealed manhole covers and removed garbage bins to guard against explosives.

"I guess I have all this anti-terrorism stuff at the back of my mind," said Rose Masterson, who drove to New York from Connecticut with friends. "But I wasn't going to let that stop me. You have to be able to live your life. That's what tonight is about."

There were more comfortable places to be in New York on an evening when the windchill plunged temperatures into the low teens. But few places were as festive or as hopeful.

Asked why they came, people offered snapshots of New York's mood at the end of a somber, traumatic year. Some said they had come expressly to send the terrorists a message: "What I'd like to say to Osama bin Laden is, 'In your face!' " said Kevin Buckley, a Bronx construction worker. "You don't get away with that kind of destruction in my city. He doesn't scare me, not at all."

Others seemed introspective, hoping to honor the dead. As she posed for a picture with a member of the New York Fire Department, Ruth Petrovia said she couldn't ever forget the rescue workers who gave their lives trying to save others. When the bells started ringing at 6 p.m. and loudspeakers throughout Times Square boomed Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," Petrovia said, "I had to wipe tears from my eyes. . . . It's been such a sad year here."

But most seemed to feel that coming to a boisterous public party on the coldest night of the year was a sign that they were getting on with their lives. John Brownlee, his face swathed in a New York Yankees ski cap, stamped his feet to stay warm and joined his friends in an impromptu dance to welcome in the new year. A blast of wind sent them scurrying for cover in a storefront.

"If you can't get excited on a night like this in Times Square, you never will," he said. "I look at a place like this, and it's just one big party. This is what we all need now."

All around him, the huge neon signs advertising soft drinks, cars and rock stars were interspersed with newer signs, many installed since Sept. 11. "United We Stand" and "God Bless America" shone brightly along with photographs of rescue workers who died at the World Trade Center. Unlike previous years, when most people in the crowd blew horns and wore oversize goggles saluting the new year, many waved U.S. flags and wore patriotic regalia.

"My buddies and me spend every New Year's together, but this one was special," said Matt Bochus, from Alabama, rubbing his hands together to keep warm. "We took a ride down to ground zero [the site of the World Trade Center] before we came here and it put things in perspective. This year, the party is different."

He squinted at the glass ball atop a skyscraper several blocks away that would slowly come down just before midnight, as it has for decades. But this year the panels of the 1,070-pound Waterford Crystal ball were engraved with the names of the countries that lost citizens at the twin towers, as well as the squads of police, fire and rescue workers who lost members.

"What a terrible year," said a police officer, waving people through a checkpoint and scanning the crowd for any signs of trouble. "You want to forget it, but you can't."

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