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US celebrates Independence Day

05 July 2013, 10:18

New York — Extravagant displays of Independence Day fireworks lit up the skies around the United States, including 19 single bursts in Arizona to remember the firefighters killed in a wildfire, the Statue of Liberty reopened eight months after it was shuttered by Superstorm Sandy, and President Obama urged citizens to live up to the words of the Declaration of Independence.

Four barges carrying 40 000 shells on the Hudson River on Thursday night unleashed a barrage of brilliant reds, whites and blues — some in shapes and smiley faces — as spectators marvelled at the classic New York over-the-top fireworks display, snapping videos and pictures on their phones.

In Arizona, a fire chief read the names of the 19 firefighters killed last weekend battling a wildfire while 19 single fireworks burst overhead.

"Less than 100 hours ago, the city of Prescott, the state of Arizona and the nation lost 19 of the best, the bravest firefighters ever dispatched into the forest," fire department division chief Don Devendorf said.

The commemorative starbursts were followed by a raucous 20-minute display choreographed to patriotic pop songs, which drew cheering, grins and shouts of "America!"

Earlier on Thursday, hundreds lined up to be among the first to board boats destined for Lady Liberty, including New Yorker Heather Leykam and her family.

First large gathering in Boston since attack

"This, to us, Liberty Island, is really about a rebirth," said Leykam, whose mother's home was destroyed during the storm. "It is a sense of renewal for the city and the country. We wouldn't have missed it for the world."

Boston hosted its first large gathering since the marathon bombing that killed three and injured hundreds, and Philadelphia, Washington and New Orleans hosted large holiday concerts. A Civil War re-enactment commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the war's deadliest, drew as many as 40 000 people to Pennsylvania. In Arizona, sober tributes were planned for the 19 firefighters who died battling the blaze near Yarnell.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, speaking at the reopening of the Statue of Liberty, choked up as she told the crowd she was wearing a purple ribbon in memory of the fallen firefighters.

"Nineteen firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty, and we as a nation stand together," she said through tears.

The island was decorated with star-spangled bunting, but portions remain blocked off with large construction equipment, and the main ferry dock was boarded up. Repairs to brick walkways and docks were ongoing. But much of the work has been completed since Sandy swamped the 4.8-hectare island in New York Harbour, and visitors were impressed.

"It's stunning, it's beautiful," said Elizabeth Bertero, aged 46, of California's Sonoma County. "They did a great job rebuilding. You don't really notice that anything happened."

Hot dog champ

The statue itself was unharmed, but the land took a beating. Railings broke, docks and paving stones were torn up and buildings were flooded. The storm destroyed electrical systems, sewage pumps and boilers. Hundreds of National Park Service workers from as far away as California and Alaska spent weeks cleaning mud and debris.

"It is one of the most enduring icons of America, and we pulled it off — it's open today," National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said. "Welcome."

The statue was open for a single day last year — 28 October, the day before Sandy struck. It had been closed the previous year for security upgrades. Neighbouring Ellis Island remains closed and there has been no reopening date set.

Elsewhere in New York, throngs of revellers packed Brooklyn's Coney Island to see competitive eating champ Joey Chestnut scarf down 69 hot dogs to break a world record and win the title for a seventh year at the 98th annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. Sonya Thomas defended her title with nearly 37 dogs.

In his weekly radio address from Washington, Obama urged Americans to work to secure liberty and opportunity for their own children and future generations. The first family was to host US servicemen and women at the White House for a cookout.

In Boston, attendance for the city's celebration appeared to be down early, but increased as the start of the festivities approached. Crowds on the Charles River Esplanade seemed smaller than in recent years, while a robust law enforcement presence greeted revellers gathering for a performance by the Boston Pops and a fireworks display.

Nationwide, anti-surveillance protests cropped up in a number of cities on Independence Day with activists speaking out against recent disclosures that the National Security Agency has been secretly logging people's phone calls and Internet activity. In Philadelphia, more than 100 people marched downtown to voice their displeasure, chanting, "NSA, go away!"

- AP


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