NEW YORK, Jan. 1 (UPI) -- About 500,000 revelers went through the intense security checks that any large public event in New York City requires and crammed into Times Square on Tuesday to greet the new year.
Actor, director and activist Christopher Reeve and his wife, actress and author Dana Reeve, joined New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to lead the 60-second countdown to 2003 and signal the lowering of the New Year's Eve ball -- an event seen by an estimated 1 billion people worldwide via satellite.
"We are honored and humbled to be recognized as this year's special guests, in a city famed for its courage and perseverance. This has been a landmark year for our family and we could not imagine a more perfect way to end 2002," said Dana Reeve. "We are thrilled to be chosen to ring in 2003 -- a new year that promises progress in research and a better quality of life for those living with disability."
According to Times Square Business Improvement District President Tim Tompkins, the Times Square New Year's Eve organizers thought hard about the message they wanted to send about New Year's Eve.
"It is important to note that for many, the turn of the year is a time of commitment and renewal; a time for looking forward with hope and courage rather than back with fear and regret," Tompkins said. "As almost no one else can do, Christopher Reeve and his wife Dana show us that no matter what cards life deals us, change and hope and renewal can be part of our lives if we focus not just on what is but on what can be."
Bell wristbands were distributed to 50,000 revelers in Times Square from 43rd to 47th Streets to set a record for the world's largest synchronized bell ringing led by the New York City Riverside Ringers hand bell choir.
Anita Ward sang her classic disco anthem "Ring My Bell."
Fireworks in Central Park returned after a year off: fireworks were banned following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But the reports that five men wanted for questioning by the FBI might have entered the United States illegally from Canada plus "unsubstantiated, uncorroborated and of suspect credibility" information that an attack could occur from the water meant even tighter security than usual.
"Some steps will be obvious, others will not," New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in a news conference. "Several hundred members of every specialized police unit including the Emergency Service squads, drug and bomb sniffing canine units and counter terrorism personnel will be on duty as will be 2,000 police officers some in uniform and some undercover at Times Square."
Even before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, New Year's Eve at Times Square -- the crossroads of the world -- had become a very secure affair.
No vehicles were allowed in the area and garbage cans and mailboxes secured, manhole covers welded shut and the area was patrolled by bomb-sniffing dogs and guarded by snipers on rooftops.
Each of the hundreds of thousands of people who entered the Times Square area had to go through one of eight metal detectors, searched by hand-wands of police and asked for photo identification. Backpacks and other bulky bags were searched. No alcohol was permitted into the area. No aircraft were permitted within the Manhattan area and the U.S. Coast Guard restricted pleasure craft in New York Harbor.
Although it looks like a spontaneous crowd on television, New Year's Eve at Times Square is a scripted, regulated event.
People are urged to get to Times Square as early as possible to get a good spot in the "pens" of cordoned off areas surveyed by police officers -- many people arrive eight hours in advance and they need stamina.
"The best advice we can give is to GET HERE AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE. We cannot predict how quickly the viewing areas will fill up. Prime viewing areas may fill up early in the afternoon," advised Countdown Entertainment, an organizer of the annual New Year's Eve celebration along with The Times Square BID. "There are no public restrooms available and there will be no licensed food and beverage vendors in Times Square.
"Please bear in mind that if you dine at a local restaurant you will not simply be able to come out and watch the ball lowering at midnight. Please remember that if you leave your viewing area to dine in a restaurant you may not be able to return to your spot in a viewing area. Furthermore, no one is allowed to stand in the emergency lanes or on sidewalks."
At least the weather was mild, with temperatures in the 50s. Revealers, many sporting glasses made from the number 2003, were given 20,000 long red balloons while tons of red, white and blue confetti was stockpiled on roofs and shot from confetti "guns."
A ball has dropped from a pole from the top of One Times Square to ring in the New Year since 1907, but the 6-foot-diameter, 1,070-pound Waterford ball now in use was built for the millennium celebration in 2000.
The ball is illuminated by 600 light bulbs, 96 strobes and 90 rotating mirrors and powered by 83,000 watts of electricity. It takes 60 seconds for the ball to descend the flagpole.
Rooftop celebrations atop One Times Square and a fireworks display took place in 1904 by The New York Times to inaugurate its new headquarters in Times Square and celebrate the renaming of Longacre Square to Times Square.
The first ball lowering occurred in 1907 and is now a worldwide symbol of the turn of the New Year.
According to Countdown Entertainment, in 1942 and 1943 the ball lowering was suspended due to the wartime blackout conditions. The crowds still gathered in Times Square and observed a minute of silence followed by chimes ringing out from an amplifier.
(Reported by Alex Cukan)