Three Prince George's County firefighters beamed Monday evening as they arrived at Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre for the "Ladder 49" world premiere, as personal guests of John Travolta.
How they came to be there is a whirlwind of a story that starts with an emotional rescue on February 22nd, 2004, then a surprise appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show along with the "Ladder 49" stars, and to top it all off, an invitation from John Travolta himself to attend the exclusive Hollywood movie premiere and after-party.
Lt. "Dino" Mahaffey, ERT Phil Bird and Lt. Kenneth Ward received star treatment as they walked the red carpet Monday evening. Their rescue story had appeared on "Oprah" just that afternoon, and the entertainment reporters along the red carpet stopped them repeatedly for interviews. Throughout the evening, as they mingled among the movie stars, they were followed by a camera crew from the Oprah Winfrey show.
It all began at a fire last winter when Mahaffey was conducting a search on the second floor of a triplex, and became entrapped. The staircase had become impassable and smoke was pouring up it like a chimney. After he called out a Mayday, his colleagues reached him, and found him unconscious with his mask off and burns to his hands. They gave him air and safely carried him out through a window and down a ladder.
Mahaffey said he and his wife wanted to do something very special to thank his colleagues for saving his life. They got the opportunity through the Oprah Winfrey show, which invited Mahaffey to surprise two of his colleagues with an appearance on the show, during which they shared their story and he presented them with the fire department's medal of valor.
However, it didn't end there. While filming the show, John Travolta invited all three of them and their wives to the "Ladder 49" Hollywood premiere. Their flights and hotel costs were covered.
"It was great to see the smiles on their faces," Mahaffey said. "To me, it's still not enough to show these guys what it meant."
Although Mahaffey was only able to recognize two colleagues on the Oprah Winfrey show, they all stressed that credit is due to everyone involved in the rescue, and specially thanked Captain John Lyons of Rescue Squad 27 and Firefighter Vaughn McMillian of Engine 42. "I wish everyone involved could have been here," Bird said.
Before the premiere on Monday, they excitedly watched the preparations at the theater from their hotel window. Bird said he has been completely overwhelmed by the experience and by the amount of recognition they have received.
"It's been too much to explain," he said. "They've done so much." He said it's clear that John Travolta and the people of "Ladder 49" really appreciate and understand what firefighters do.
He and Ward agreed, however, that despite all of the star treatment they have received, the highlight of this experience was something very simple - the moment on the Oprah Winfrey show when Lt. Mahaffey presented them with the fire department's medal of valor. Bird said the presentation was especially meaningful coming from Mahaffey himself, because of the brotherhood between them.
They all agreed that the experiences on "Oprah" and at the premiere have wrapped up a story that started out quite painful, but came to have a positive effect on themselves and on their department.
Mahaffey said that since his rescue and recovery, he has received letters and e-mails from all over the world wishing him well. "I just never thought that many people paid attention to what we did," he said. Although he wishes the incident never happened, he welcomes the opportunity to publicly recognize his colleagues, "to show the world what we go through and how much we care about each other."
Bird added that the experience has also brought the department together. "We don't just talk about the brotherhood," he said. "We know what it's all about."