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Real-life heroes, Hollywood style

Sun Staff

The most realistic parts of Ladder 49, the new film shot in Baltimore and starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix, are the things that movie-goers will never see on-screen.

They won't see Baltimore Fire Lt. Mark Yant standing just inside the door of a burning home, ready to spring into action if the film's deliberately set fires began to rage out of control and an actor became trapped.

They won't see the cameras wrapped in fire-retardant material, and the crew - camera operators, gaffers and sound supervisors - suited up in firefighters' gear.

They won't see Travolta, Phoenix, and the actors who portrayed firefighters going through strenuous training at Baltimore's fire academy and, later, riding along with the city's engine companies.

"They were on the fire trucks with us every day," firefighter Don Coster said before last night's benefit screening of the new film at .

Ladder 49, the story of a firefighter trapped in a burning building and the efforts to save him, opens nationwide Friday.

Director Jay Russell has said Ladder 49 is the first major feature film since Sept. 11, 2001, to explore firefighters' daily lives, and those who have attended advance screenings praise its fidelity to both the tone of life in the firehouse and the realistic portrayal of the techniques and challenges of battling blazes. As such, it is a rare look at the men and women who have become American heroes since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center three years ago.

Baltimore had a rare role in shaping that look, and so such local luminaries as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. joined Travolta, Phoenix and hundreds of others for last night's $200-a-plate screening and prefilm party, held in the Belvedere Square parking lot.

About 800 tickets were sold for the event, which raised $175,000 for the Baltimore City Fire Foundation, according to Allied Advertising, the firm handling publicity for the film.

Two shiny red fire engines were parked on York Road outside , their ladders extended so that they met in the middle and formed an upside-down "V." From that makeshift scaffolding hung an immense movie poster. Dozens of onlookers filled the sidewalks behind police barricades, and diners in a York Road Chinese restaurant pressed their faces to the glass window to get a glimpse of the stars.

The party tent was draped in red and lit by red strobe lights. Guests sipped champagne and sampled caviar and star-shaped chocolate cookies. The Police Emerald Society of Baltimore Pipe Band, which has a cameo in the film, played bagpipes outside the Senator dressed in kilts.

Even political rivals O'Malley and Ehrlich Jr. made nice, smiling and waving at each other as the traditional sidewalk block decorated for the premiere was unveiled.

"I want to thank director Jay Russell for filming this great film in the greatest city in America," O'Malley said to the crowd.

Ehrlich, his wife Kendel alongside him (she actually spent a day on the set, he noted with pride, but wasn't on film), spoke glowingly of the effect movies filmed and set in Baltimore, have on civic pride.

"It's hard to measure, but it definitely counts," said Ehrlich. "It's very important to our image, so that people may see this movie and say, 'Hey, Maryland might be a nice place to go.'"

Ladder 49 could just as easily have been made elsewhere. New York, and Philadelphia also were competing for the movie, and filming costs in Toronto are particularly low. But Baltimore offered unprecedented firehouse access to the cast and crew. "We told them that as long as they portrayed the city and the department fairly, we would cooperate in any way we could," Goodwin said.

In addition, Baltimore is among the 10 busiest fire departments in the nation, Goodwin said, with more than 100,000 responses a year to reports of fires, hazardous materials and medical emergencies "It was appealing to us because this gave us a chance to talk to people about what we do," he said.

About 300 of the department's 1,700 firefighters and personnel participated in some way in Ladder 49's production, according to Yant, the film's technical adviser, though he emphasized that the filming never resulted in empty fire stations.

"The safety of Baltimore residents never was compromised," he said. "We juggled shifts so the city never was without protection. And Disney, which released the film, picked up the entire tab for the overtime. This didn't cost taxpayers one penny."

Yant said that one particularly daring rescue in the film is based on real life. In the early 1990s, a high-rise in Times Square caught fire. The New York fire department lowered a firefighter down a rope outside the building to where the trapped victim waited by the window. The victim jumped into the firefighter's arms, and the pair was lowered to safety. The line could have broken and sent both plunging to their deaths, but that's the kind of risk firefighters take all the time, Yant said.

As for the glamour part, to everyone else, Joaquin Phoenix is a movie star. But to Shawn Little and cousins Don and Matt Coster, he was just another guy keeping the firehouse running. Not only did Phoenix make it through the academy training, but he also spent six weeks on the job, riding to fires, pulling hoses, living the life.

"He cleaned tables, he cleaned toilets, he did the same things we did everyday," said Little, an emergency vehicle driver with the department's Truck No. 10.

In the movie, Phoenix, the rookie, is the butt of good-natured hazing. That's also true to life, says Baltimore County firefighter Joe Carter, who after two years in his Owings Mills station is still low guy on the totem pole.

"I slept with a frog," he recalled cheerfully earlier in the day. "And I have the pictures to prove it. I kept hearing this 'ribit' all night, and I didn't know where it was coming from. The next day I found it, alive and unharmed, duct-taped inside my pillow-case."

If Baltimore's firefighters learned to respect the film's stars, it worked both ways. Russell, Travolta and Phoenix were among the 1,000 people attending the 12th Firefighter/Para- medic Appreciation and Awards Day program Sunday at the Marriott Hotel.

"These are all the guys who helped us make it so real," Travolta said of that ceremony yesterday. "You looked out there, and every other face was one of the guys who helped train one of the actors."

Baltimore County firefighter Mike Fold agrees. He and his sister, Elizabeth, have cameos in Ladder 49.

"It takes a certain brand of person to do this job," he said. "You talk about courage, and you talk about sacrifice ... they're our true heroes."

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