NEW YORK, Dec 31 — Throngs of revelers flooded into the streets in and around New York’s Times Square amid tight security on Saturday to send off a year marked by a grim anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the city and give a boisterous welcome to 2012.
The highlight of the celebrations, which a million people were expected to attend, was to be the lowering of a large lighted crystal ball for the last minute of the old year — a tradition started in 1907.
The light-studded ball was raised six hours before the drop, and police who had earlier closed off streets around Times Square were prohibiting celebrants from bringing alcohol, backpacks, large bags or packages into the area.
“It’s just something that we’ve always wanted to do,” said a woman named Peggy who came with friends from Newfoundland. ‘’We said this would be the year that we’d come and try it, and we’re glad we did.”
The raucous celebration was scheduled to include televised performances by pop stars Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Cee Lo Green, among others.
Unusually mild temperatures of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit encouraged the thousands of revelers expected to fill nearly 20 city blocks stretching from Times Square toward Central Park, said Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance.
“Literally, by noon the streets were so clogged with people the police had to close streets a couple of hours earlier than they’ve done in past years,” Tompkins said.
“I thought I was going to freeze, but it’s not that bad at all,” said a young woman named Alexis who came from Virginia with her friend Rachel to see Justin Bieber and “because it’s fun, and it’s cool, and I’ve never been to New York.”
At one minute before midnight, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and singer Lady Gaga are scheduled to press the button that signals the start of a 60-second descent of the Waterford crystal ball.
The dropping of the 11,875-pound ball, studded with more than 32,000 LED lights, from its perch above Times Square is televised around the world. The streets around Times Square are expected to be cordoned off until about 3 a.m. on Sunday.
Police spokesman Paul Browne said the city was expecting about a million visitors in the square on Saturday night, drawn in part by relatively mild weather.
NO KNOWN SECURITY THREATS
Browne said bomb squad units were conducting sweeps of hotels, theaters, construction sites and parking garages.
A Pakistani American, Faisal Shahzad, pleaded guilty last year to rigging up a crude car bomb packed with explosives and parked near Times Square in May, 2010.
The bomb failed to go off and Shahzad later pleaded guilty, saying he had been trained by Pakistani Taliban fighters.
Radiation-detection boats were deployed in the city’s waterways on Saturday, where 33 dinner cruises were scheduled to take place on Saturday night, and officers would patrol the city’s streets and transit system, Browne said.
“New York City is always at the top of the terrorists’ target list and we treat most large gatherings, especially high profile, iconic ones like New Year’s Eve, as potential targets,” Browne said in an e-mail. “However, there are no known threats on the city coinciding with New Year’s Eve.”
A little more than two hours before the new year, New Yorkers will toast to the memory of those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Somber ceremonies marked the 10th anniversary of those attacks in September.
That comes after 2011 saw U.S. forces kill al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, in a May raid in Pakistan. The year also saw the last of U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq in mid-December although U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama, in a year-end weekly address, struck a hopeful note as he hailed foreign policy milestones including successes against al Qaeda, while keeping pressure on Congress to further extend payroll tax cuts through the end of 2012.
The president, whose prospects for reelection later in 2012 are expected to hinge in part on the strength of the economy, said that 2011 was a “time of great challenge and great progress.”
“There’s no doubt that 2012 will bring even more change. And as we head into the New Year, I’m hopeful that we have what it takes to face that change and come out even stronger — to grow our economy, create more jobs and strengthen the middle class,” he said, speaking from a week-long vacation in Hawaii. (Reporting by Jonathan Allen and David Bailey; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)