Stars of Ladder 49 Greet Winners at World Premiere

Also: Ladder 49 Makes Blazing Impact at World Premiere

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Firefighter Eric Levine of the Bridgeport, Connecticut Fire Department thought it was a joke when he got a phone call telling him he had won's trip to Hollywood for the "Ladder 49" world premiere. He still couldn't believe it while he was actually there days later, shaking hands with John Travolta.

Levine, a Bridgeport firefighter of 14 years, said he found out about the "Ladder 49" Sweepstakes -- sponsored by Nextel -- while reading "I figured I'd fill it out, not figuring I was going to win," he laughed. He was on vacation on Long Beach Island in New Jersey when he got a phone call from founder and publisher Dave Iannone.

"I thought he was joking, but he reassured me it was the real deal," Levine said. "I couldn't believe it. I still don't."

Levine and his wife Michelle are from Trumble, Connecticut. They arrived in California Sunday, the day before the big event, and were picked up at the airport by Los Angeles County Fire Department PIO Capt. Rex Vilaubi, who whisked them off for a tour of Station 27 in Hollywood and then to the Los Angeles Fire Museum.

The Levines are happily expecting their first child so they took it easy during their free time, relaxing by the pool at the stylish Hollywood Renaissance Hotel, and strolling along the Walk of Fame. On Monday night, however, they were ready for the excitement of the exclusive movie debut and an evening among celebrities.

Levine said he has never won a contest like this before, and was thrilled with the opportunity. He said that he and Michelle had been to Los Angeles but not to Hollywood, and certainly not to a star-studded, invitation only event.

"It's definitely a dream come true," he said. "Being in the heart of Hollywood, seeing everything get set up... it's unreal."

As movie time approached, the El Capitan Theatre was surrounded by a sea of squirming onlookers. After navigating their way through the crowds and security guards, the Levines walked the red carpet early in the evening along with other invited guests.

As Hollywood notables began to arrive, the crowds went wild and all guests were ushered inside, where they settled in with popcorn and soft drinks at this most famous and unusual of movie venues.

Eric and Michelle both said they loved "Ladder 49."

After the premiere, they and the other guests were shuttled to the Los Angeles Fire Museum to hob nob with the stars. The building, a former fire station, was lit up by bright projections of the name "Ladder 49," and the area around the museum was laid out with tables, food and a bar. Almost immediately upon entering the party, the Levines met "Ladder 49" actor Robert Patrick. They also met actor Kevin Chapman and brushed elbows and chatted with Joaquin Phoenix and Jacinda Barrett.

While munching, they saw other stars among them, including Sting, Kevin Nealon and Jon Voight.

The highlight of the night, however, was their meeting and photo opportunity with John Travolta. When the Levines get home and develop their film, they'll know for sure that it was all for real.

"Thank you so much for the work you do," Travolta told the couple, congratulating them on winning the Sweepstakes. The Levines returned the compliment by telling Travolta -- and many other cast members -- how much firefighters would appreciate their work in the film, and their accurate portrayal of the fire service.

Levine said the trip was everything they had hoped for. "I'm speechless, it's overwhelming," he said. "I want to thank for everything they've done. It's been a real VIP trip. We couldn't ask for anything more."

Two more visitors were also winners of our other two LADDER 49 Sweepstakes grand prizes.

Firefighter Jessica McNeil, in her second season with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, won an opportunity to interview the stars of Ladder 49 at a press event in Washington, D.C. next week. She and a guest will also attend the annual Baltimore City Fire Department medals ceremony -- where the actors will be present -- and the Baltimore opening of the film on Monday night.

Wayne Hendrix, a chief officer with the Switzerland, Fla. Fire Department won a private showing of Ladder 49, which he'll be sharing with his entire fire department and area firefighters and rescue workers in St. Johns County.