BACK ON Jan. 28, Super Bowl Sunday, the phone rang at a Baltimore County fire station, and LeRoy Edmunds picked up. This is Vinny Princiotta, the caller said. New York City Fire Department, Engine 16/Ladder 7. "We wanna make a bet on the game."
The Giants were about to play the Ravens. This Princiotta wanted to make it interesting and have some fun with guys from a Baltimore firehouse with a comparable number. He'd been calling around. He couldn't find an Engine 16 in Baltimore City. So he settled for the one in the county -- Station 16, Golden Ring.
This is Vinny Princiotta, the caller said. "I wanna make a bet."
Edmunds sniffed a stationhouse prank. The New York accent sounded authentic, but he didn't bite.
"Let me call you back," Edmunds said.
When he did, he got Engine 16/Ladder 7 in Manhattan and spoke again to this Princiotta character, who was, of course, bustin' chops about the Giants trouncing the Ravens.
OK, Edmunds agreed, you got a bet.
How about 20 T-shirts?
If the Giants were to win, the guys from Station 16 would give up 20 BCFD T-shirts to the guys in New York. If the game went the other way, then the guys at Engine 16/Ladder 7 would send 20 of theirs south.
Baltimore won the game, of course, and Edmunds found himself in the enviable position of winning a bet with a brassy New Yorker.
He called Manhattan the next day.
"Is Vinny Princiotta there?" Edmunds asked.
"There's nobody here by that name," Princiotta said with a laugh, then promised to make good on the bet. He invited Edmunds to the Big Apple to collect.
In April, Edmunds and some comrades -- Lt. Butch Polesne and firefighters Dave Oliver and Dave Dryden -- made the trip to Manhattan and got the T-shirts. They stayed at Engine 16/ Ladder 7, 29th Street and Second Avenue, and the guys there treated them like brothers.
"Oh my God, they were so nice to us," Edmunds recalled yesterday. "We went up there for two days and stayed overnight. ... Food? Oh my God, they made hamburgers that had to weigh a pound apiece. There was pasta and chicken breast. One plate looked like a serving for four."
Princiotta and a firefighter named Patty Boylan showed them some sights, including the nearby Empire State Building, the landmark that appears, as an icon, on one of their trucks. Edmunds noticed a proud claim in large letters on Ladder 7's truck: "We Can Do That."
Princiotta and Boylan took the Baltimore guys to a couple of clubs for off-duty drinks. "The bouncers knew Vinny," Edmunds said. "What a great guy, a wild man."
There was a New York Giants flag hanging near the watch room. When the New Yorkers were looking the other way, the Baltimore County guys replaced it with a Ravens banner, a finishing touch to all the back-and-forth ribbing that had gone on throughout the visit.
It was a great experience -- lots of laughs, instant camaraderie. Edmunds had so much fun he planned to return in December. Even though he'd known him for a short while -- a few days, a few hours, really -- in Princiotta, he felt he'd made a friend for life.
Then came 9-11. When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Edmunds knew right away that, if Princiotta was on duty, he'd be at the scene.
And still is.
The staggeringly long list of MIAs from the Fire Department of New York lists 39-year-old Vincent Princiotta and five other comrades from Ladder 7 -- firefighters George Cain, Robert Foti, Charles Mendez and Richard Muldowney Jr. and a lieutenant named Vernon Richard.
A day or so into the nightmare, Edmunds wasn't sure what had happened to his new friend. He called Princiotta's house in a New York suburb. He thought he heard a familiar voice. "Vinny?" he said. But the man who answered the phone turned out to be Princiotta's brother-in-law. He told Edmunds the bad news. It's believed Princiotta and his crew were in the midst of trying to rescue people from one of the burning twin towers when it collapsed.
Since the disaster, people have flooded Engine 16 with tributes, placing flowers and American flags beneath the station's roster board, preserved with the chalked-in names of Princiotti and the others who were on duty 9-11.
Over the weekend, LeRoy Edmunds and some firefighter friends visited their brother-firehouse on 29th Street to express sympathy and support. This time, they stayed at a motel. "Patty Boylan was there, but he was not like himself at all," Edmunds said. "Still, they were super nice to us. ... Then the family of some of the missing guys started to come in."
And it was time to leave.
They walked around Manhattan. "People were so nice to us," Edmunds said. "We went into a biker bar and people clapped. Strangers on the street hugged us. We told them we weren't from New York, we were from Baltimore. And they said, 'We don't care, we love you. ... You're here. You came up here to support our guys.'"
They did what they could from home, too. Each day last week, the firefighters at Station 16 wore the Engine 16/Ladder 7 T-shirts they'd won on Super Bowl Sunday.