The heat was stifling, security measures were intense, and memories of the Boston Marathon bombings were lingering, but hundreds of thousands of devoted revelers jammed patches of green along the Charles River on Thursday to take in Boston’s July Fourth gala.
Temperatures rose to 93 degrees by midday and lingered above 90 into the evening, which some officials primarily blamed for a lower turnout than recent years. More than 200 people sought treatment at medical tents along the Esplanade for heat-related illnesses; a dozen were transported to hospitals.
Just getting onto the Esplanade for the annual fireworks display and Boston Pops holiday concert was a task, with security heightened in response to the bombings, whose alleged planners originally targeted the Fourth of July celebration.
But for some, no obstacle could keep them away.
The cluster of families camped out near the front edge of the Hatch Shell have come to the Esplanade so many years in a row, they’ve even given themselves a nickname: “The Red, White, and Blue Crew.”
The group, now numbering about 70, became friends over years of standing in line for the event.
“We’re from all over the country — all across the political and personal spectrums — but we all center around Boston patriotism and the Pops music,” said T.C. Jones, 59, a Virginia resident.
Though wary of security concerns, they weren’t willing to miss the Fourth of July on the Charles.
“It was the scariest thing I ever heard when I heard the Esplanade was the original target” of the alleged bombers, said Greg Hebert, 57, of Waltham. “But if we stay home out of fear, the terrorists win.”
By the time the fireworks launched at 9:30 p.m., the Esplanade was packed nearly to capacity as onlookers craned their necks toward the sky to watch the colorful display. State Police estimated more than 300,000 people crowded the lawn. But that was less than the half-million people that have attended the event when the weather was good.
State Police said some potential revelers may have stayed home to avoid the scorching temperatures and humidity. Across the Esplanade, couples wiped sweat off each other’s faces with napkins. Children tried to suck down Italian ices before they melted.
“It really is hot and oppressive, and that doesn’t make it attractive for people,” said State Police Colonel Timothy Alben, who acknowledged the strict security measures also may have kept people away.
State troopers in bulletproof vests, federal officials, and local police patrolled the Esplanade and nearby footbridges throughout the day and into the evening, along with what Alben called “an exponentially larger amount of cameras than ever before.”
Those weren’t the only reminders of the Marathon bombings that rocked the city nearly three months ago. During the evening concert, Richard Donohue, the transit police officer critically wounded during a shootout with the bombing suspects, brought the crowd to its feet when he conducted the orchestra as it performed the Dropkick Murphys’ ode to the city, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.”
As the fireworks lit up a cloudless sky, the voice of Mayor Thomas M. Menino was piped through the speakers, championing the city’s strength and resilience.
Throughout the day, visitors seemed unusually patient with the sometimes slow security measures at checkpoints.
But the process was not without a sense of confusion. Backpacks were not allowed, yet security workers allowed some to carry in large duffel bags and bulky purses.
State Police spokesman David Procopio said backpacks are less malleable and flexible than some other types of bags. He said some people were asked to roll up their bags inside clear plastic bags while passing through security and were allowed to unroll them once inside.
Dale Schaetzke, a Shrewsbury real estate auctioneer, was surprised when a security official made him give up a beach umbrella, which was not on the list of prohibited items. He said the security officers who confiscated it told him they did not want beach umbrellas because they could be used as spears.
Schaetzke noticed that pop-up tents and canopies were allowed, though.
“I understand that there is a hyper-sensitivity to protecting public safety, but if you can bring in a 10x10 tent, why can’t you bring in a beach umbrella?” he said.
Alben said he understood the new rules may have led to confusion, and that State Police will reassess procedures for next year.
“The public has cooperated tremendously” with the security, he said. “There are always going to be some people who don’t like [tight security]. We understand that. But I think it’s the world we live in.”
Some revelers said the restrictions and large police presence made them feel safer.
“I’m glad they’re checking bags and walking around,” said Ricky Diaz, who sat by the river with his wife, Brittany, and their 1-year-old daughter. “It shows they’re not just letting anybody in.”
Shay Zohal, 32, was at the event for the first time and said he wasn’t bothered either. “I’m from Israel,” he said. “So this is nothing.”
Governor Deval Patrick said the security level was appropriate under the circumstances.
“I think we have done what the public expects us to do in the wake of what happened at the Marathon,” he said. “After every incident, everybody takes a step back and tries to learn from it and that’s what this is about.”
But as the fabled “1812 Overture” drew to a booming close and the fireworks began exploding over the river, some who spent the day baking in the heat said it was worth any inconvenience.
Near the front, T.C. Jones, of the Red, White, and Blue Crew wiped sweat off his brow and confetti off the American flag jersey he has worn every Fourth of July for 20 years.
“Now that’s why I drive past D.C., past New York, past Philadelphia,” said Jones, a veteran of the 82d Airborne Division. “This is the best party in the nation.”
As that party drew to a close at 10 p.m. and the final burst of light faded in the sky, longtime Boston resident Sandi Padellaro-Lopez, 68, was among the last of the crowd to leave.
“Today was pride,” she said. “We aren’t going to let the bombings get to us. Living our lives is the best revenge.”