The Statue of Liberty finally reopened on the Fourth of July months after Superstorm Sandy swamped its little island as Americans across the country celebrated freedom and President Barack Obama urged citizens to live up to the words of the Declaration of Independence.
The reopening was a sign of recovery as the nation used the day to celebrate its independence in a wide variety of ways — from a solemn fireworks tribute to fallen firefighters to traditional parades and concerts to competitive hot dog eating.
In New York, a large crowd gathered for the holiday and ribbon-cutting ceremony at Liberty Island with federal officials and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Lines stretched blocks long for the boat, which left from Battery Park in Manhattan.
Rodney and Judy Long, of Charlotte, N.C., were the first people in line for the boat called Lady Liberty. They couldn't get tickets to climb to the top of the statue, but they were just glad to be there for the big reopening, they said.
"It's perfect timing for it to reopen. It's really a symbol for what the country is all about," Rodney Long said.
In Arizona, sober tributes were planned for 19 firefighters who died this week battling a blaze near Yarnell. Boston prepared to host its first large gathering since the marathon bombing that killed three and injured hundreds, and Philadelphia, Washington and New Orleans planned large holiday concerts.
Competitive eating Sonya Thomas defended her women's titles at the 98th annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. Thomas, of Alexandria, Va., devoured 36 and three-quarters hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes to win the women's competition at the annual Fourth of July Coney Island event.
The defending men's champion is Joey Chestnut and he won, for the seventh time, eating a record 69 hot dogs.
On Liberty Island, Heather and Chris Leykam marked the holiday at the statue with their three kids: Avril, 7, Delilah, whose 6th birthday is Thursday, and Finn, 1. The family thought it would be fitting to celebrate Delilah's birthday at the Statue of Liberty.
"This to us, Liberty Island, is really about a rebirth," said Heather Leykam, whose mother's home in Breezy Point was destroyed during Sandy. "It is a sense of renewal for the city and the country."
Some repairs to brick walkways and docks are ongoing but much of work has been completed since Sandy swamped most of the 12 acres of the national landmark.
The statue was spared in the fall storm, but Lady Liberty's island took a serious 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 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. "Welcome."
Liberty Island Superintendent David Luchsinger noted that the island had reopened after being closed for a year for security upgrades Oct. 28, the day before Sandy struck.
"I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little sick and tired of opening as closing the Statue of Liberty," Luchsinger said. "I think we will keep it open this time."
The tiny island was decorated with star-spangled bunting Thursday, but some parts remain blocked off, and the main ferry dock was boarded up.
Nevertheless, visitors were impressed.
"It's stunning, it's beautiful," said Elizabeth Bertero, of California's Sonoma County. "They did a great job rebuilding. You don't really notice that anything happened."
Visitors went through security on lower Manhattan after city officials criticized an earlier plan to screen them at neighboring Ellis Island, which endured far worse damage to its infrastructure and won't be open to the public anytime soon. The damage to both islands was $59 million.
In his weekly radio address, Obama urged Americans to live up to the words of the Declaration of Independence by securing liberty and opportunity for their own children as well as for future generations.
The first family was to host U.S. servicemen and women at the White House for a cookout later Thursday.
Not everyone was welcoming the masses — Hermosa Beach, Calif., was ramping up police patrols and making room in jails for revelers who in recent years have made the city an annual destination for celebrating independence with drunkenness and raucous behavior.
Associated Press writer Christopher Weber in Hermosa Beach, Calif., contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.