JAKE PEARSON, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) â?? From solemn to spectacular, the nation marked its independence with the reopening of the Statue of Liberty for the first time since Superstorm Sandy, extravagant fireworks that included a 19-burst salute to Arizona's fallen firefighters and a musical tribute in Washington to those affected by the Boston Marathon bombing.
"I always love July Fourth and I'm very happy to be in this country, I know I'm blessed," said 15-year-old Yoana Lorenzo, who was among the millions who watched the New York City's over-the-top Fourth of July Fireworks show Thursday night. "To see all these people come together and celebrate, it's pretty great."
Four barges carrying 40,000 shells on the Hudson River unleashed a barrage of brilliant reds, whites and blues â?? some in shapes and smiley faces â?? as spectators marveled at the famed New York fireworks display, snapping videos and pictures on their cellphones.
Earlier Thursday, hundreds lined up to be among the first to board boats destined for Lady Liberty, which opened for the first time since it was shuttered by Sandy. Among them was New Yorker Heather Leykam, whose mother's home was destroyed during the storm.
"This, to us, Liberty Island, is really about a rebirth," said Leykam, who was with her family. "It is a sense of renewal for the city and the country. We wouldn't have missed it for the world."
In Prescott, Ariz., celebrations were more subdued.
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!"
Also, 19 candles burned beneath red, white and blue bunting, at Bistro St. Michael on Whiskey Row in the old West town â?? one for each firefighter.
In California, more than two dozen people were injured when a wood platform holding live fireworks tipped over, sending the pyrotechnics into a crowd in Simi Valley, northwest of Los Angeles. Officials said 20 people were taken to hospitals with minor to moderate injuries, and eight more were treated at the park. A bomb squad was at the park to deactivate the remainder of the fireworks.
In Washington, thousands gathered on the National Mall to ring in the Fourth of July with fireworks and music. Neil Diamond sang "Sweet Caroline" in tribute to victims and survivors of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing. The song is a Fenway Park tradition, and Diamond performed it there in the aftermath of the attack.
Boston hosted its first large gathering since the marathon bombing that killed three and injured hundreds. While attendance for the city's celebration appeared to be down early, it 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 revelers gathering for a performance by the Boston Pops and a fireworks display.
Among those at Boston's festivities was Carlos Arredondo, the cowboy hat-wearing marathon attendee who became part of one of the indelible images of the bombings' aftermath in a photo showing him helping rush a badly wounded man from the scene in a wheelchair, his legs torn to pieces.
Arredondo said the July 4 celebration â?? an event authorities believe the bombing suspects initially planned to target â?? was an important milestone in the healing process, not just for him but also those who were stopping to tell him their own stories from that day.
"I think there's no better place to be," said Arredondo, wearing his cowboy hat and a "Boston Strong" shirt in the marathon's colors of blue and yellow.
Speaking at the reopening of Lady Liberty, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell 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.
Liberty 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 12-acre island in New York Harbor.
The statue itself was unharmed during the storm, 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 â?? it's open today," National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said. "Welcome."
The statue was open for a single day last year â?? 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.
Nationwide, Philadelphia, Washington and New Orleans hosted large holiday concerts. A Civil War re-enactment commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg drew as many as 40,000 people to Pennsylvania.
Also 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, President Barack Obama urged Americans to work to secure liberty and opportunity for their own children and future generations. The first family hosted U.S. servicemen and women at the White House for a barbeque.
Atlanta and Alaska held holiday runs â?? thousands raced up a 3,022-foot peak in Seward. In New Orleans, the Essence Festival celebrated black culture and music along the riverfront.
The celebratory mood turned somber in Oklahoma and Maine with fatal accidents during parades. In Edmond, Okla., a boy died after being run over by a float near the end of the town's LibertyFest parade. In Bangor, Maine, the driver of a tractor in the parade was killed after the vehicle was struck by an old fire truck.
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 band perform on a stage that stood where the home next to hers had been.
Associated Press writers Bridget Murphy in Boston, Katie Zezima in Union Beach, N.J., Christopher Weber in Hermosa Beach, Calif., Stacey Plaisance in New Orleans and Colleen Long in New York City contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.