By Frank McGurty
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of merrymakers converged on Times Square on Saturday evening, hours before the giant New Year's Eve ball makes its midnight descent, a century-old New York tradition unfolding this year under an unprecedented blanket of security.
As many as 2 million people, surrounded by a ring of 40-ton sand trucks and some 7,000 police, are expected to gather in the "Crossroads of the World" to watch the kaleidoscopic sphere complete its midnight drop, marking the beginning of 2017.
By sunset, a veritable sea of humanity had already streamed into the V-shaped plaza and down the avenues that cross at the square. As revelers arrived, police herded them into temporary corrals designed for crowd control, each holding about hundreds of people. Anyone who leaves, even for a bathroom break, will lose his or her spot, according to the official website.
Michelle Adkins was so excited to be there that she left her sleepy friend behind at the hotel and headed for the bright lights long before the witching hour.
"I've waited my whole life to see Times Square," said Adkins, 51, who works in a tire manufacturing plant in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. "I didn't come to New York to sleep! I ain't got no time for sleep!"
Even though city and federal officials say they are not aware of any credible threats, a protective perimeter of 65 hulking sanitation trucks filled with sand, as well as about 100 other smaller vehicles, encircled the Times Square area.
Placed in strategic positions, the "blockers" are intended to prevent a repetition of the truck attacks in Berlin and Nice earlier this year, officials said.
Despite the heavy police presence, or perhaps because of it, throngs of people, many from overseas, arrived early to get a prime view of festivities, which include live musical performances by Mariah Carey, Thomas Rhett and Gloria Estefan.
For New York in winter, temperatures were relatively comfortable at just above 40F (5C) under cloudy skies, though the city warned of intermittent wind gusts.
John O'Leary, 57, his wife, Claire, 51, and their two children were passing through Times Square on Saturday afternoon during a visit from their native England.
"It's just amazing," O'Leary said. "I just can't believe how they can manage all this, in terms of security."
At 11:59 p.m. (0459 GMT), the ball, formed by nearly 2,700 crystal triangles and lit by 32,000 lights, will begin to slide down a pole that sits atop a building at the head of the plaza. When it completes its descent at midnight, a giant "2017" sign will illuminate and a shower of fireworks will light up the sky.
CIRCLE OF TRUCKS
It is not the first time that New York has set up a perimeter of heavy sand trucks at large gatherings. The same strategy helped protect crowds at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in November, after Islamic State militants encouraged followers to target the event, which drew about 3.5 million people.
Since Donald Trump's election in November, blocker trucks have been positioned near Trump Tower, his Fifth Avenue headquarters and residence, a short distance from Times Square. The president-elect is spending the holidays in Florida.
For New Year's Eve, New York also deployed heavily armed police teams, snipers, bomb-sniffing dogs and helicopters. Coast Guard and police vessels are patrolling waterways around Manhattan.
U.S. defense and security agencies said they believed the threat of militant attacks inside the United States was low during the New Year's holiday, though the possibility of an attack, no matter how remote, was always present, they said.
Likewise, New York Police Commissioner James O'Neill said at a briefing this week that there were "no direct concerns" related to this year's festivities in Times Square.
Even so, he said, "we are going to have one of the most-policed, best-protected events and one of the safest venues in the entire world given all the assets we deploy here."
Chicago, San Francisco and other big U.S. cities have also put heavy security in place to protect crowds expected to gather at public fireworks displays and other "first night" events.
In Washington, where federal budget cuts have done away with traditional New Year's Eve fireworks on the National Mall, no major events were planned. Police declined to comment on any special security plans, saying only that events across the world are monitored for their potential impact on the U.S. capital.
(Additional reporting by Chris Francescani in New York; Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio, Steve Orlofsky and Nick Zieminski)