By Laila Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than a million people were expected to crowd into New York City's Times Square under heavy security on Thursday to celebrate the arrival of 2016 with the traditional dropping of the New Year's Eve crystal ball.
Throngs of people began streaming into the area early in the day, spending hours outdoors even before official festivities began with the lighting of the ball at 6 p.m..
With memories of the deadly attacks in Paris and California still fresh, police took extraordinary measures to ensure security at an event that has come to define the New York experience for many visitors to the largest U.S. city.
"This is the center of the world on New Year's Eve," said Rick Milley, 60, who traveled from Boston with his wife, Debbie, 59, to ring in the new year in Times Square.
"This was on our bucket list," Debbie Milley said as the couple took pictures of themselves using a selfie stick.
The pair have spent the holiday in New York before but never in Times Square, the Midtown Manhattan crossroads that is a year-round tourist draw, filled with chain stores, family restaurants and flashy advertising displays.
About 6,000 uniformed and undercover police officers, 500 more than last year, were expected to be in the area on New Year's Eve, with the help of mounted patrols, bomb-sniffing dogs, radiation detectors and other sophisticated technology.
"We have the capacity here to take a celebration like this and to make sure it's exceedingly safe," New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in an interview with CNN. "You'll see lots of police officers in regular uniforms and regular weaponry but you'll also see the heavily armed officers."
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has ranked the Times Square celebration as a level-2 concern on its five-point scale of security risks for major public events, a designation one step below the top-rated level-1 classification given Friday's Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California.
Department officials have said they are unaware of any specific, credible threat to the Times Square gathering.
PENNED IN FOR THE PARTY
The famous New Year's Eve ball, which is 12 feet (3.6 meters) in diameter and weighs nearly 6 tons, descends on a pole mounted on top of One Times Square, a narrow wedge of a building along 42nd Street at the southern end of the square. The descent starts at exactly 11:59 p.m. EST.
By early evening, crowds organized into neat pens formed by police barricades stretched for many blocks up Seventh Avenue and Broadway north of One Times Square. From a vantage point about 20 floors above, the revelers appeared to be tucked neatly into block-long honeycombs encircled by uniformed officers and support workers dressed in bright red coveralls.
Cheers reverberated through the area as images from the entertainment stages flashed on a giant screen mounted on the building just below the pole supporting the crystal ball. On occasion, fireworks exploded above, sending flashes of light and wafts of smoke through the square.
The normally bustling blocks south of 42 Street were deserted, except for police and emergency vehicles.
"I always wanted to come here, but never took the chance," said James Gomez, 39, of New Haven, Connecticut, as he surveyed the area with friends looking for a prime viewing spot.
Gomez came to Times Square even though he said he was concerned about the area being targeted in an attack.
"I'm scared," he admitted.
In the hours before midnight, revelers like Gomez and his friends were to be treated to performances by musicians such as Carrie Underwood and Jessie J performing on multiple stages set up in the area.
In addition, more than 100 million Americans and 1 billion people worldwide were expected to watch the festivities on television.
The city for the first time was deploying its new Critical Response Command counterterrorism unit, which includes more heavily armed officers, to patrol Times Square.
The unit is trained to detect and respond to planned attacks, such those in Paris that killed 130 people on Nov. 13, or the rampage in San Bernardino, California, in which 14 were slain.
In Rochester, New York, a 25-year-old man accused of planning to attack a restaurant on New Year's Eve there was arrested on Wednesday and charged with attempting to provide support to Islamic State, the U.S. Justice Department said on Thursday.
Rochester, about 330 miles (530 km) northwest of New York City, canceled its New Year's Eve fireworks display. It did not give a reason.
Before entering Times Square, visitors were required to pass through tight security checkpoints, with police stopping anyone from carrying backpacks and large bags into the area while searching smaller bags and scanning people with metal detectors.
Once inside the square and funneled into one of the dozens of viewing pens monitored by law enforcement, visitors were barred from leaving or re-entering those corrals until the end of the event.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman from Los Angeles and Frank McGurty in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis)