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24,000 converge on Antietam for MSO, fireworks

July 05, 1998

below: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

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Crowd at AntietamBy DON AINES / Staff Writer

SHARPSBURG - Concert-goers ignored forecasts of possible thunderstorms Saturday evening to spread a few thousand picnic blankets across the gently sloping hill behind the visitors center at Antietam National Battlefield.

The field formed a natural amphitheater for the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and the 13th Annual Salute to Independence, which continued its streak of having never been rained out.

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"For a fireworks display, there couldn't be a better place," said Art Cline of Hagerstown, who was attending his fifth Fourth of July concert at the battlefield. He said he'd attended an Independence Day celebration in Washington, D.C., with half a million other people once.

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"By comparison, this is an ideal setting," he said. The backdrop to the orchestra stage was rolling fields and forests fading to slate blue mountains.

Shortly after the concert started, Park Superintendent John W. Howard estimated the crowd at about 24,000 people, although hundreds were still tramping in from outer parking areas as guest conductor Harry Ellis Dickson struck up "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Howard said the crowd was less than the 30,000 or more the event has averaged in recent years, but said the weather forecast was a factor. He said the biggest crowd was about 38,000 in 1991 after the Persian Gulf War.

"This is a wonderful crowd. It defies the imagination. ... A lot of families and a lot of generations," Howard said. That family atmosphere has contributed to another of the annual concert's distinctions: No one has ever been arrested.

"I went down to D.C. once and I'll never go back" Sally Miller of Hagerstown said of the celebration in the nation's capital.

"You just feel safer and it's a nice crowd," said Laurie Sandberg of Hagerstown, who has missed just two of the concerts in 13 years.

"You just have to count on spending two hours to get out" after the concert, Miller added.

Sleepercannonbehind wheelby: MIKE CRUPI / staff photographer

She and Sandberg were in a group of more than a dozen, including several children. As concert veterans they brought toy wagons to help haul in chairs, blankets, toys and coolers.

At the end of the evening, Miller said they would be used to first haul back the gear and then some tired children. She said it's a good way to keep them from getting separated in the dark.

"I like some of the music and the fireworks," said Lauren Sandberg, 8, although she admitted her musical tastes lean more to the Spice Girls than Sousa.

One of many waving Old Glory at the concert was Loki. The dog, named after the Greek god of mischief, had a small flag tied to his upright tail with a red, white and blue ribbon.

Loki's owner, Ron Buhrman of Hagerstown, was attending his first concert. His friend Wendy Schoppert said it was her fourth time.

"I've been coming here because it's a nice day spent with the family ... especially when it cools off like this," the Hagerstown woman said just before the concert.

Not everyone was perfectly behaved. One group of boys managed to figure out the traverse and elevation of a 105-millimeter howitzer, one of six from a National Guard unit in Greenbelt, Md., that would be used later to punctuate Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."

With one boy straddling the barrel, the young crew swung the artillery piece around toward a staff sergeant answering a battery of questions at the next howitzer.

"You're dead, army man!" shouted the boy on the barrel.

Although most of the concert-goers were from the Tri-State area, there were cars in the parking areas with license plates from as far away as Texas, California and Alaska.

"Now the real challenge begins," Colleen Mastrangelo said a few minutes after the fireworks finished at about 10 p.m. The off-duty park ranger said a "sea of people" was streaming away for the long traffic jam home.

Logistically, Howard said the concert and fireworks are a challenge. The service brought in 62 portable toilets, 400 trash and recycling cans and used about 12,000 garbage bags.

Fifty park rangers were supplemented by about an equal number of Maryland State Police, Washington County Sheriff's deputies, and fire and ambulance personnel. The 65-piece symphony also had its own volunteers.

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