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22 April 2024

World bids adieu to a rocky 2008

For many around the world watching the new year arrive, 2008 had not been pretty. Slumping stocks. Disappearing jobs.

“I’m looking forward to 2009,” said Randolph King of England, whose retirement fund was gutted in the global financial crisis. “Because it can’t get much worse.”

After the most volatile financial year in decades, people paused for a deep breath.

“We’re not going to celebrate in a big way. We’re being careful,” said architect Moussa Siham, 24, as shoppers in the affluent area west of Paris were scaling back purchases for the traditional New Year’s Eve feast.

The new year also brought tragedy, as rescue workers in Thailand said at least 59 New Year’s revelers died in a fire that swept through a popular nightclub in Bangkok, with about another 130 injured.

In the splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI called for “soberness and solidarity” in 2009. During a year’s end vespers service Wednesday evening, the pope said these times are ‘marked by uncertainty and worry for the future’ but urged people not to be afraid and to help each other.

Others tried to forget their troubles, for at least one night.

Six luxury cruise liners floated off Rio’s famed Copacabana beach as fireworks erupted over heads of approximately 2 million Brazilian revelers.

Roberto Felipe, a 22-year-old construction worker, was shirtless as he watched the spectacle.

“I hope that tonight we begin the end of war and crisis,” said Felipe, who was wearing sunglasses at midnight. “I hope that 2009, which is bringing your President Obama to the scene, will help us all have a better life.”

In New York, hundreds of thousands of revelers packed a frigid Times Square for the descent of the famous Waterford crystal ball at midnight, eager to say goodbye to 2008.

Sydney, Australia, was the world’s first major city to ring in 2009, showering its shimmering harbor with a kaleidoscope of light that drew cheers from more than a million people.

In Ireland, thousands of Dubliners and tourists gathered outside the capital’s oldest medieval cathedral, Christ Church, to hear the traditional New Year’s Eve bell-ringing.

“It is a wondrously beautiful note on which to end what, for many people, has been an awfully out-of-tune 2008,” said Gary Maguire, a volunteer pulling the ropes.

On Dublin’s north side, Danny McCoy, a recently laid-off construction worker, mulled over his waning fortunes as he got his hair cut.

“Last New Year’s I had a fat wallet. I didn’t have to worry about paying for my round, never mind the taxi fare home,” he said. “Tonight I’ve a mind to keep the festivities close to home, because I can’t really afford to do anything.”

In Malaysia, the government - mindful of the shaky economy - chose not to sponsor any celebration at all.

In Hong Kong, thousands thronged around Victoria Harbor for a midnight fireworks display, but those with investments linked to collapsed investment bank Lehman Brothers - which filed the biggest corporate bankruptcy in US history in mid-September - were finding little joy.

“I don’t think there’s any reason for me to celebrate after knowing that my investment is worth nothing now,” said electrical repairman Chan Hon-ming, who had purchased a $30,000 Lehman-backed investment.

In Iceland, where people have been angry over the country’s collapsed economy, demonstrators forced an annual New Year’s Eve broadcast featuring the prime minister off the air, storming the hotel where it was being filmed. They threw fireworks and water balloons at police, who responded with pepper spray.

In India, many were happy to see the end of 2008 after a series of terrorist attacks in several cities, culminating in the three-day siege in Mumbai that killed 164 people.

“The year 2008 can best be described as a year of crime, terrorist activities, bloodshed and accidents,” said Tavishi Srivastava, 51, an office worker in the northern Indian city of Lucknow. “I sincerely hope that 2009 will be a year of peace and progress.”

In Athens, police said arsonists attacked at least 10 banks and two car dealerships amid the celebrations, but no arrests or injuries were reported. Cities in Greece had riots recently over the fatal shooting of a teenage boy by police.

Celebrations were muted in China, where fireworks and feasting are reserved mainly for the Lunar New Year, which in 2009 begins January 26.

At midnight in Japan, temples rang their bells 108 times - representing the 108 evils being struck out - as worshippers threw coins as offerings and prayed.

In Tokyo, volunteers stirred huge pots of New Year’s rice-cake soup and doled out blankets and clothing to the needy.

Japan has long boasted a system of lifetime employment at major companies, but that has unraveled this year amid the financial crisis.

“There’s no work,” Mitsuo Kobayashi, 61, muttered as he picked up a wool scarf, a coat and pants. “Who knows what next year will bring?”