ROME -- Andrew Garnett, a seminarian from Oyster Bay, was on his way back from theology class in Rome late Wednesday afternoon when he decided to stop in front of St. Peter's Basilica.
He ended up seeing the show of his lifetime, with literally a front-row seat.
He didn't think the 115 cardinals meeting in the nearby Sistine Chapel would elect a new pope that night. The widespread speculation was that the conclave would likely last at least several days, not 24 hours.
But as Garnett, 25, stood just four rows back from the barricades protecting the basilica, smoke came out of the chimney at the Sistine Chapel. After brief confusion, it became apparent it was white.
The crowd went crazy, roaring its delight. A new pope had been elected.
"It was absolutely incredible," said Garnett, who is studying to be a priest with the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The shouting and cheering "was better than any sports game I've ever been to."
Garnett ended up with the front-row perch because he had arrived there so early -- 5:45 p.m. Cold rain about 15 minutes later drove some people away.
The smoke did not come until shortly after 7 p.m. By then, St. Peter's Square was jammed with tens of thousands.
Garnett said that, like many others, he did not know a lot about the new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. But he was thrilled just the same.
Also in the crowd, close to the front, was the Rev. Jerry DiSpigno, pastor of Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church in Bellport. He said he arrived in the plaza about 5:30 p.m. The cable television station the Diocese of Rockville Centre runs, Telecare, had asked him to go there and interview people, who spoke live with Telecare over DiSpigno's cellphone.
DiSpigno is in Rome on a three-month sabbatical. He arrived two days after Pope Benedict XVI announced he was resigning. He said the throng erupted when white smoke appeared. "I've never heard a crowd roar like that, the excitement," he said. People yelled "white" in English and Italian. Others waved their national flags.
The crowd surged forward when the new pope appeared on a second-floor balcony of St. Peter's Basilica about an hour later.
By then, DiSpigno was about 40 yards from the basilica, close enough that he could see Bergoglio was wearing glasses.
When the new pope asked the crowd to pray for him, and bowed down, the throng became quiet. "There was silence, there was respect, there was awe," DiSpigno said. "You could hear a pin drop."