NEW YORK - Extravagant displays of Fourth of July fireworks lit up the skies around the nation, including a smiley face that gave a wink to about a million spectators in New York City, the Statue of Liberty reopened eight months after it was shuttered by Superstorm Sandy, and President Obama urged citizens to live up to the words of the Declaration of Independence.
"They're awesome," said a beaming 10-year-old Johnny Deluca, of Melbourne, Fla., while watching the famed Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks show in Manhattan with his parents Joe and Marie.
"He wanted to see the largest fireworks show in the world so we planned our vacation specifically to see the show in Manhattan," added Marie Deluca.
Four barges carrying 40,000 shells on the Hudson River on Thursday night unleashed a barrage of brilliant reds, whites and blues - some unleashed in shapes and smiley faces - as spectators marveled at the classic New York over-the-top fireworks display, snapping videos and pictures on their cellphones.
This year's theme for the 25-minute show was "It Begins With a Spark" - and that's exactly what tourist Dan Tufariello had in mind when he got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend, Mai Tran, just minutes into the show.
"I always knew we were going to get engaged and I thought, what better time than during the fireworks," the Naples, Fla., man said.
Earlier Thursday, hundreds lined up 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 hosted its first large gathering since the marathon bombing that killed three and injured hundreds, and Philadelphia, Washington and New Orleans hosted large holiday concerts. A Civil War reenactment commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg drew as many as 40,000 people to Pennsylvania. 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.
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 the 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.
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 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.
In Boston, attendance for the city's celebration appeared to be down early, but increased as the start of the festivities approached. Crowds on the Charles River Esplanade seeming 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: helping rush a badly wounded man from the scene in a wheelchair, his legs torn to pieces.
Arredondo said the July 4 celebration - an event authorities believe the bombing suspects initially planned to target - is an important milestone in the healing process, not just for him but also those who were stopping to tell him their own stories of 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 blue and yellow colors.
Kathy Concileo had staked out a nice spot for the evening's concert, near center stage. The Norwell, Mass., woman said she was surprised at the turnout.
"As much as they say we've healed and moved on, I think this shows that people are still afraid to come out in a crowd," she said.
Not everyone was welcoming the masses - Hermosa Beach, Calif., was ramping up police patrols after years of drunken and raucous behavior from revelers. 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'll find out if the grant money she'll receive is enough to rebuild the home where she lived for 15 years.