Nation celebrates independence

NEW YORK - The Fourth of July weekend is shaping up as a celebration for Americans watching fireworks around the country - and for three elephants and a turtle.

In Key West, Fla., an ailing sea turtle that was rescued before Inauguration Day and named after President Barack Obama was set free on Independence Day. From the sand, it swam into the wild waters.

And on Brooklyn's Coney Island, the elephants rested after eating 505 hot dog buns in six minutes Friday, winning a competition against three humans who downed 143 buns.

After nightfall, more than 22 tons of pyrotechnics - the nation's biggest fireworks display - are set to explode over a mile-and-a-half stretch of the Hudson River, a new vantage point for New York's festivities. Millions of spectators expected to watch from both sides of the river.

The celebration returned to Manhattan's West Side for the first time since the 9/11 attacks. The extravaganza was expanded this year with more than 44,000 shells.

The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum - a retired World War II aircraft carrier - was hosting the live NBC broadcast of the spectacle. The show featured the cast of Broadway's 'West Side Story' and other stars.

While the recession forced many communities to scale down, or even cancel, their fireworks, 'we're a country of survivors and fighters, and we try to make things work,' said Gary Souza, whose family-owned, California-based company is staging the New York display as well as hundreds of others across the country - including the nation's capital.

In Washington, the daylong celebrations started with a parade along Constitution Avenue and was to end with fireworks over the Washington Monument.

President Obama, speaking to military families at the White House for Independence Day festivities, told the service members they were 'the latest, strongest link in that unbroken chain that stretches back to the Continental Army.'

Vice President Joe Biden spent the Fourth of July in Iraq, presiding over a naturalization ceremony for 237 U.S. troops from 59 countries. He had lunch with the 261st Theater Tactical Signal Brigade from Delaware, to which his son, Beau, belongs.

Former President George W. Bush spoke amid thunderous applause in rural Woodward, Okla., calling the U.S. the 'greatest nation on the face of the Earth.' He thanked members of the military for their service, and thanked spectators for giving 'a retired guy something to do.'

In Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, the city held a parade through the Old City neighborhood for the first time in 18 years. Descendants of the Declaration's signers gathered at the Liberty Bell, and fireworks were planned over the Museum of Art.

On Saturday morning in Boston, with its rich Revolutionary War history, the Navy's oldest commissioned warship performed its annual turnaround in the harbor. The USS Constitution - 'Old Ironsides' - marked the day by firing a 21-gun salute, the highest maritime honor, followed by 19 volleys.