By Colleen Long
The Statue of Liberty reopened on the Fourth of July, eight months after Superstorm Sandy shuttered the national symbol of freedom, as Americans around the country celebrated with fireworks and parades and President Obama urged citizens to live up to the words of the Declaration of Independence.
Hundreds lined up Thursday to be among the first to board boats destined for Lady Liberty, including New Yorker Heather Leykam and her family.
"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."
Nationwide, Boston prepared to host its first large gathering since the marathon bombing that killed three and injured hundreds, and Philadelphia, Washington and New Orleans geared up for large holiday concerts. In Arizona, sober tributes were planned for 19 firefighters who died this week battling a 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.
A large crowd gathered for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Visitors woke before dawn and waited in lines that stretched blocks long for the boats, which left from Battery Park in Manhattan.
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 work has been completed since Sandy swamped the 12-acre island in New York Harbor, and visitors were impressed.
"It's stunning, it's beautiful," said Elizabeth Bertero, 46, of California's Sonoma County. "They did a great job rebuilding. You don't really notice that anything happened."
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 — Oct. 28, the day before Sandy struck. It had been closed the previous year for security upgrades. Neighboring Ellis Island remains closed and there has been no reopening date set.
Elsewhere in New York, throngs of revelers 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 U.S. servicemen and women at the White House for a cookout.
Lawmakers used the holiday to speak out about national issues including immigration and gun control. Former congresswoman Gabby Giffords stopped at a Cincinnati parade as part of her seven-state tour to push efforts aimed at keeping guns away from criminals and the mentally ill.
Atlanta and Alaska planned holiday runs — thousands were racing up a 3,022-foot peak in Seward. In New Orleans, the Essence Festival celebrating black culture and music, kicked off along the riverfront.
The celebratory mood turned to tears in Oklahoma, where a boy died after being run over by a float near the end of Edmond's LibertyFest parade. The child was riding on a martial arts group's float when he either fell or got down from the float and was struck.
Not everyone was welcoming the masses — Hermosa Beach, Calif., was ramping up police patrols after years of drunken and raucous behavior from revelers. Police in Bangor, Maine, rerouted the parade and sealed off streets after a man fired shots. No one was injured. And Hartford, Conn., postponed fireworks because the Connecticut River was too high.
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!"
But in Union Beach, N.J., which was destroyed by Sandy, residents had something to celebrate. The working-class town won a party and fireworks contest from the television station Destination America and USA Weekend magazine.
"It's wonderful. Everyone's been so depressed," said Mary Chepulis as she watched a local band perform on a stage that stood where the home next to hers had been.
Every July 3, she and her friends and family would stand on a deck packed with people, food and coolers and watch the fireworks. Next week, she will find out if she will get enough grant money to rebuild the home where she lived for 15 years.
Associated Press writers Katie Zezima in Union Beach, N.J., Christopher Weber in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and Stacey Plaisance in New Orleans contributed to this report.
By Deepti Hajela
Look! Up in the sky over New York Harbor; watch wide-eyed from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and the shoreline of Bay Ridge! It's a ... space shuttle!