Thanksgiving Day parade balloons fly a little lower as weather cooperates _ barely

Thursday, November 23rd 2006, 11:19 am

By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Wind and rain could not keep thousands of spectators from crowding Manhattan streets to see Big Bird, Snoopy and other signature balloons and floats of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The weather, however, prompted city officials to order the balloons flown lower than usual, none rising beyond 17 feet, for safety. But that didn't seem to bother 9-year-old Sarah Barker.

``It means a better view,'' she said. She wasn't kidding _ Snoopy made his way downtown past her, his right paw seemed to almost touch the wet street.

Parade organizers and city officials were also relieved that there were no incidents. They had stressed safety precautions since two sisters were injured by falling debris when a streetlight snagged a balloon in last year's parade.

Officials made their decision just before the 9 a.m. start, basing it on several factors, including information from the National Weather Service and newly installed wind-measuring instruments along the route.

``You don't want to ground the balloons and all of a sudden have the wind die,'' said Jarrod Bernstein, a spokesman for the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

The balloons, most filled with helium, have been grounded just once in the parade's 80-year history, in 1973.

Wind gusts reached 17-21 mph Thursday. City guidelines call for grounding the parade's giant balloons if winds reach 23 mph and gusts exceed 34 mph.

Those rules were put in place after 45 mph winds sent a Cat in the Hat balloon careening into a metal pole during the 1997 parade, leaving a woman in a coma.

This year, Garfield, Ronald McDonald, Scooby-Doo and SpongeBob SquarePants were among the many inflatable characters that took flight.

The parade also featured 33 floats with themes as varied as Charlotte's Web and Barbie, almost a dozen marching bands from across the country, and celebrities including singers Barry Manilow, Gloria Estefan and Ciara.

Denise Walker, 47, drove with her husband for two days from their home in Clinton, Tenn., to see the parade, one of the things on her to do list before she died, she said.

``It's been great,'' Walker said. ``It's been all I expected, and more.''

Some people huddled under the big signs on Broadway, or sought refuge in the few stores that remained open for the holiday. Parade participants, many of them wearing outfits unsuited for November weather in New York City, were visibly shivering.

Alana Mozley, a 17-year-old cheerleader from Nevada, said she was surviving.

``We're cold and wet, but we're having fun,'' the teen said, as she raised her pompoms and marched with a group of 550 peers from the UCA/UDA Cheerleaders, all wearing orange, short-skirted uniforms and transparent plastic ponchos.

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