HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- "Ladder 49" made a blazing debut on the big screen Monday night at its jam-packed, star-studded Hollywood premiere.
Crowds swarmed the streets and balconies around the El Capitan Theatre in hopes of glimpsing the movie stars as they walked the red carpet. The electronic billboard above the theater was alight with images of Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta, and fire trucks emblazoned with "Ladder 49" decals lined the block.
Among the first to walk the red carpet were event guests including Firehouse.com's "Ladder 49" contest winners, Eric and Michelle Levine of Trumble, Connecticut. Eric, a career firefighter of 14 years with the Bridgeport Fire Department, and his wife were all smiles throughout the event, from the glamorous arrivals outside the theater, to the movie viewing itself, to the exclusive after-party where they got to mingle with "Ladder 49" stars and other Hollywood notables.
They found the night's events increasingly surreal as they were personally introduced to actors Kevin Chapman, Robert Patrick and John Travolta. "It's been a once in a lifetime experience," Levine said.
Other guests on the red carpet included the three firefighters from Prince Georges County, Maryland, who appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show Monday afternoon and arrived at the "Ladder 49" premiere as personal guests of John Travolta. They were stopped repeatedly by the throng of entertainment reporters lining the walkway, and were followed throughout the evening by a camera crew from the Oprah Winfrey show, which plans to air a follow-up on their story.
At the end of the red carpet stood the honor guard from the Rancho Cucamonga, California Fire Protection District, present at the request of Disney. The group had traveled to Baltimore twice during filming for "Ladder 49" in 2003 and were the only California Honor Guard selected to participate in the movie. For the premiere, they were asked to post colors while the actors and other invited guests arrived. The members agreed that this role at the premiere gave them the best of all worlds: the honor of supporting the film makers for their accuracy and interest in the fire service, and the amazing, up-close opportunity to meet the stars as they entered the theater.
Inside, "Ladder 49" was extremely well received. It was a roller coaster of a movie which repeatedly brought guests to the edge of their seats, to the point of tears, and to laughter. Afterward, many raved about the experience and congratulated the stars at the invitation-only party held at the Los Angeles Fire Museum.
During the festivities, Rancho Cucamonga Eng. Bill Kirkpatrick said the movie was everything he'd hoped for, and that he was happy with the film's portrayal of the fire service.
"I was just talking to John Travolta regarding the incident where he's taking a rookie in for his first fire, and I remember my rookie time," Kirkpatrick said. "I went in for my first fire and my adrenaline was going 100 miles an hour, and I was getting tired. John Travolta was holding the rookie back, saying pace yourself... it just caught me," he said. "There were other things in the movie that just caught my heart in the same way."
Jim Townsend, president of Rancho Cucamonga IAFF Local 2274, explained that the Honor Guard got involved in the premiere by making contact with the movie's production company, through Firehouse.com.
"We were very persistent and kept calling," Townsend said. "We'd almost given up hope, when a couple of weeks ago Disney actually called us and said, 'We would like you to be the honor guard at the premiere, similar as you were at the movie,'" he said. "So we're very honored to do this. And we got to be out there in front. It was actually the best seat in the house, because all the actors walked right by us."
The Rancho Cucamonga group also included Capt. Paul Lenze, Eng. Bob Eggers and Firefighter Matt Eddy. Like the many, many others who served as "Ladder 49" extras, they wondered if they had made it into the movie.
"I think each of us might have about a quarter to a half second," Townsend said. He joked, "We'll have to buy the movie and freeze frame it at home."
"Ladder 49" opens at theaters nationwide on October 1.