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Security is tight as year begins

Police poised in S.L., other cities amid

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Pfc. Michael Oakes guards the entrance to the A and B gates at McCarran International in Las Vegas.

Pfc. Michael Oakes guards the entrance to the A and B gates at McCarran International in Las Vegas.

Sam Morris, Associated Press

NEW YORK — From Times Square to the Las Vegas Strip, revelers rang in 2004 today under some of the tightest New Year's Eve security in U.S. history, with snipers posted on rooftops and helicopters assigned to patrol overhead.

The raising of the national terrorism alert to orange, its second-highest level, prompted cities across the country to step up police patrols, plan aerial surveillance and install equipment to detect chemical, biological or radiological contamination.

In Utah, security among First Night events was stepped up due to the national security level being moved to orange.

More officers were called in for First Night in Salt Lake City because of the advisory, said Salt Lake Police Lt. Mark Askerlund, but said no warnings had come in from the FBI or Department of Homeland Security.

"We don't have any specific threats to Salt Lake City," Askerlund said.

In fact, Askerlund said more officers were called in for saturation patrols to catch DUI drivers than out of any other security concerns.

Mike Riley of Huntsville, Ala.,among the crowd at Times Square, said, "You can't let them spoil the party, right? Everybody in the world watches it on television, and since I was little, I wanted to be in Times Square on New Year's Eve."

Metal detectors were brought in, manhole covers were sealed, and mailboxes, trash cans and newspaper boxes were removed. Police readied seven helicopters to patrol above the crowd, estimated at between 750,000 and 1 million. The Department of Homeland Security told city officials Wednesday that it was granting their week-old request to send fighter jets over New York for the night.

Police said more officers would be on duty this year than last, though they declined to give numbers. Last year the department said it deployed 2,000 officers in Times Square alone.

"We know that New York remains at the top of the terrorists' target list, and we have to remain vigilant," Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said.

Safety concerns did little to keep partygoers away. Dozens of cordoned areas were packed with revelers by early evening, and police were directing crowds blocks north of Times Square.

Many revelers had more mundane concerns than terrorism. Akiko Shiraishi, 21, a Japanese student at a college in South Carolina, said she and her friends were "much more worried about the bathroom" than security.

In Las Vegas, the FBI checked hotel and airline records against terrorist watch lists in advance of a New Year's Eve celebration expected to draw 300,000 people.

"People can take comfort that anything and everything that can be done is being done," said FBI spokesman Todd Palmer, who said checks had not turned up a specific threat against the city.

Las Vegas police said sharpshooters would be posted on hotel-casino roofs, concrete barricades would close off certain routes and backpacks and bags would be searched.

The Federal Aviation Administration banned flights, except for scheduled commercial flights, over Manhattan and Las Vegas for several hours during the celebrations.

Crowds began gathering early Wednesday in Pasadena, Calif., for Thursday's 115th annual Rose Parade amid unprecedented security. Paradegoers staked out spots for a curbside sleepover as law enforcement officers — many of them undercover — fanned out along the route.

Tim Tussman, 46, of Grantsburg, Wis., brought his girlfriend, Becky Melin, 45, to see the parade as a belated birthday gift.

"It's an obvious target, but you hope they've taken all that into account," he said. "As a gardener, she loves flowers. We weren't going to miss it."

Officials previously canceled a street party in downtown Los Angeles, citing security concerns. In raising the nation's terrorist threat level, federal officials said al-Qaida might be planning a major attack on large gatherings during the holiday season.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., urged revelers not to attend New Year's Eve celebrations like the one in Times Square. Shays, a member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security and chairman of a terrorism subcommittee, told WVIT-TV that he wouldn't go to Times Square "for anything."

But New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Shays could "learn a little bit about courage" from former prisoner of war Shoshana Johnson, who was to kick off the midnight Times Square countdown with Bloomberg.

Elsewhere, terrorism fears put nary a dent in the festivities.

In New Orleans, 40,000 to 50,000 people were expected to watch the lowering of a giant, grinning papier mch baby in the French Quarter at midnight.

In Boston, up to 1.5 million visitors were expected to attend the "First Night" arts festival, featuring concerts, a Mardi Gras-style parade and fireworks. Elaborate ice sculptures planned as the celebration's centerpiece had to be dismantled because of unseasonably warm weather in the 40s.