Ice shimmered. Pennants and great swaths of fabric fluttered. Re-imagined beasts prowled. And secrets were revealed.

Athletes, dignitaries, scores of performers, 55,000 spectators ? and the watching world ? gloried in fires within, without and high above Friday night as the 2002 Winter Games leapt to life in Salt Lake City's Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium.

"On behalf of a proud, determined and grateful nation," President Bush ? standing among young members of his American team ? declared the XIX Winter Games to be open.

And the answer to the most-anticipated "secret" of the spectacle ? who would set alight the towering Olympic caldron ? turned out to be one of the most popular guesses:

The final torchbearer turned out to be Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" men's hockey team, who immediately beckoned to other teammates to the high platform beneath Salt Lake's shimmering steel and glass caldron. Together they tipped the torch toward the caldron ? and a great ball of flame crept up the tower and burst from the summit.

The hockey team won a now-fabled match against the then-dominant Soviet team at the Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. Eruzione and the rest of the team, which went on to win the gold medal, were not joined by players from the Soviets as some had speculated. That American victory 22 years ago galvanized national pride during a difficult time in the nation's history.

The audience of thousands began filling the stadium at the University of Utah hours before the 7 p.m. show actually began. Although temperatures gradually dipped into the mid- and low 20s, most had no trouble warming up to the multimillion-dollar extravaganza.

The United States and its sibling nations around the globe needed a celebration, and Friday's spectacle seemed tailored for the times.

The tragedies of Sept. 11 were remembered in one of the moving highlights of the 2 1/2-hour show. The tattered American flag that flew at the World

Trade Center the day the New York towers were brought down by terrorists was carried into the stadium by an honor guard of eight members of the U.S. Olympic team and representatives of the New York police and fire agencies that responded to the attacks.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, accompanied by the Utah Symphony, sang the national anthem as a breeze blew gently across the flag. In the southwest corner of the stadium, a new American flag was raised. Silent until then, the spectators burst into cheers as the fresh flag snapped smartly in the evening's light breeze.

President Bush, who spent much of the day visiting with Utah political and religious leaders, as well as U.S. athletes, entered the stadium just before the tribute to the victims of the attacks against New York City and Washington, D.C. He stood beside Mitt Romney, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee president, and Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president.

Later in the program, Rogge spoke of the attacks, calling them "a horrific tragedy ? a tragedy that has affected the whole world." He told the stadium audience and the 3 billion television viewers around that world that "we stand united with you in the promotion of our common ideals and hope for world peace."

Romney, too, addressed the attacks as he officially welcomed the world to Utah.

"After September, more than ever before, our generation longs for a world where the dreams of all the children of the world can come true."

The ground zero flag had been at the center of one of the few controversies to surface in the days before the Games got under way. The U.S. Olympic Committee had wanted it brought in behind the American team during the parade of athletes. But the IOC ? always anxious to downplay anything that could be seen as political ? decided it was more dignified to display that flag apart from the home team.

Remembrance of Sept. 11 served as a prelude to the core theme of these Games: "Light the Fire Within."

The artistic vision of producer Don Mischer, his creative team and the hundreds of performing participants gave artistic life to the motto.

The sinuous ice rink that covered much of the stadium floor filled with hundreds of skaters. One, 13-year-old Utahn Ryne Sanborn, represented the "Child Of Light," a character that Games organizers said will reappear throughout the next 16 days, including at the closing ceremonies on Feb. 24.

"It was, oh my gosh, completely, completely unnerving," the young performer said afterward. "It was awesome, way awesome. It was more cool than it was hard. It was fun."

Friday night the child was "threatened" by ominous creatures dressed in translucent white that symbolized an ice storm. He was rescued by a spinning skater in red ? a manifestation of his fire within. The ice suddenly glowed with light from lanterns and flashlights handed out to members of the audience.

And before the audience had much time to react, Winter Games athletes from around the world began their traditional, stirring parade into the stadium. Happy representatives from 77 countries filled in the until-then-empty bleachers at the south end of the stadium, beneath the shimmering glass and steel caldron.

Their exuberant entrance was followed by a colorful welcome from Utah's Native American tribes. Representatives of the Ute, Goshute, Shoshone, Paiute and Navajo nations danced and drummed as The Band's Robbie Robertson sang, accompanied by Sadie Buck and Rita Coolidge and Walela.

A graceful bird of prey swooped through the stadium; horses strutted onto the ice; then skaters swept through, representing golden eagles, considered by Native Americans to be a link between human begins and their creator.

Next up: Utah pioneers, of course ? on horseback, pulling handcarts and in oxen-drawn covered wagons. They were then joined by skaters ferrying giant moose, beaver, bear, horse, rattlesnake and buffalo puppets. The Dixie Chicks sang their hit, "Ready to Run" during a stylized rendezvous segment. Music, too, was key to the stirring stadium pageant. "Call of the Champions" ? composed for the Games and conducted by Oscar-winner John Williams ? was performed by the Utah Symphony and the Tabernacle Choir as the audience (trained during pre-show warmups) used cards to spell out and display in giant form the words "Light the Fire Within."

Fireworks punctuated the performance.

There were a few glitches, including the misspelling of Olympic skater Kristi Yamaguchi's last name on the stadium's giant screen.

The only element taken out of the show: exhibition of five large white balloons that were to rise at the end of the show. Three of them had been shredded by high winds overnight. Olympic gold medalists Peggy Fleming and Scott Hamilton ran into the stadium carrying the Olympic flame. Other athletes then took up the flame. Among them: luger Jim Shea and his father, James, who competed in the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif. Jim's grandfather, Jack, also an Olympian, was to have joined the pair but was killed last month in a car accident. The trio represent the only three-generation family to have competed as Olympians.

Tom Welch, who led the campaign to bring the Games to Utah but later embroiled in a bid scandal, was one of the beaming members of Friday's audience. The show, he said, was "really emotional. Not many people in life have the chance to see their dreams realized. Tonight, I saw mine. The world came to my home."

Dave Johnson, Welch's second-in-command, also lauded the Games kick off, which he attended with his family.

"It was really magical, it was a great experience to go to as a spectator," Johnson said.

Welch's successor, Mitt Romney, was also pleased

Salt Lake's mid-winter spectacle of fire and ice, he said, turned out to be "absolutely wonderful."

E-MAIL: lisa@desnews.com