Saturday, May 26, 2007

Firefighter worked around clock at Ground Zero Murdered

Firefighter worked around clock at Ground Zero:

Firefighter worked around clock at Ground Zero

Associated Press

May. 26, 2007 11:59 AM

NEW YORK - Firefighter Salvatore Princiotta worked around the clock at the World Trade Center site after the Sept. 11 attacks: Family members say he helped put out fires, led injured people out of the area, and spent a week digging through the smoking rubble for his uncle, a deputy fire chief.

He eventually got sick with lung problems, retired from the fire department and recently moved to Arizona, hoping the abundance of sun and fresh air would be just what his ailing body needed.

But on May 14 - five years to the day after the remains of his uncle, Chief Raymond Downey, were found at ground zero - Princiotta was found dead in his Arizona apartment. Police said there were bullet wounds in his decomposing body.

On Friday, the suspect in the slaying committed suicide after police cornered him in California, authorities said.

Police are saying little about the suspect and nothing about why he killed Princiotta, only adding to the mystery surrounding the former firefighter's final days.

But one thing is for sure - Princiotta is one of hundreds of first responders who got sick after Sept. 11 and now blame their health woes on the toxic fumes and dust at ground zero.

In January, Princiotta moved from his Manhattan apartment to Arizona because he was having trouble breathing. After several hospitalizations, he retired from the FDNY four years ago.

"He was brokenhearted," said his brother, Joseph Princiotta of Deer Park, a Long Island community where family members have lived in six houses along Oak Street for decades.

"You could say Sal was a victim of 9/11," the brother said. "He would never have moved to Arizona if 9/11 hadn't happened."

Hundreds of miles from the haunting memories, in Scottsdale, Ariz., the 43-year-old retired firefighter hoped for a new life in a near-perfect, sunny climate. He was getting disability pay - three-quarters of his firefighter salary - supplemented by income from day-trading stocks.

Photography was his pastime and passion and he planned to use his new home as a base to keep traveling the world. His photos - posted on his Web site - are from Turkey, the Czech Republic, Italy, Mexico, Greece. In the clear Arizona air, he could ride his new bike.

Three months after the terror attacks, the image of Princiotta atop a road bike was seen across the country when he and five other firefighters cycled 3,000 miles from New York to California - to say thank you to fellow Americans, especially firefighters and police in other states, for coming to New York's rescue in its hour of need.

Princiotta and his group of FDNY firefighters raised $29,000 for the Uniformed Firefighters Association Widows' & Children's Fund. His firehouse - Ladder Co. 9, Engine Co. 33 in lower Manhattan - had lost 10 of its men on Sept. 11.

Princiotta, a muscled, tattoed man friends called "Sally Boy," would donate gifts to orphaned children each Christmas, but didn't want anyone to know, said his best friend in New York, Gus Thomas.

During his almost 15 years with the FDNY, Princiotta received two citations for bravery; in one instance, he walked into a burning house to pull out a trapped firefighter.

An online guestbook with comments from friends, relatives and strangers includes an entry from the firefighter Princiotta saved, Hank Porcaro, now retired in Las Vegas.

"Sal saved my life at the very moment I was dying. Out of air, lost, and tied up in fallen cables, I knew I was breathing out my last breath," he writes, adding that the flames were blowing over his head and he was losing consciousness.

"Then I heard my miracle. A big strong voice telling me I got you, brother' sounded to me like an angel. I felt his strong arms pull my tied up body and I knew I would be OK."

Just outside Princiotta's old firehouse, a makeshift memorial still sits on a windowsill by the sidewalk - a wooden box with a glass lid that holds photos of him both in uniform and in casual attire, always in the company of his firefighter buddies.

In New York, he remains a hero, a friend, a beloved son, brother, uncle and decorated former firefighter. He was also "a consummate bachelor, outgoing and gregarious," his brother said with a chuckle.

In Arizona, the New York hero has become a victim in a murder mystery.

The suspect killed himself Friday night at a motel in San Bernardino, Calif., said Sgt. Mark Clark, a Scottsdale police spokesman.

When approached by police, the suspect fled on foot. After a short chase, he pulled out a gun and committed suicide, Clark said. The name of the 56-year-old man was being withheld until relatives could be notified, Clark said.

The question now is: What was the motive for Princiotta's slaying?

His nephew, also named Salvatore Princiotta, discovered his uncle's body on May 14, Joseph Princiotta said. Family members had been trying to reach Princiotta for about a week, after not hearing from him for a while. A niece got no reply to cell phone text messages and e-mails.

Finally, the nephew, a student at a nearby college, went to check on his uncle, using his own key to enter the condominium in his gated, low-crime community.

It appeared Princiotta had been dead for days, police said. There was no evidence of a break-in.

Thomas visited Princiotta about a month ago. He remembers answering several calls from a man named "Jeff" who would abruptly hang up when told Princiotta was still asleep. Princiotta said the man lived in California and had sold Princiotta a safe to store his coin collection after the two met in Las Vegas.

"I told him, you don't buy a safe from a stranger!" Thomas said.

The Manhattan restaurant owner said he was pleased that police found a suspect, but still sad about the loss.

"I haven't slept in weeks since he died," he said.

At first, his family in New York believed Princiotta might have died of the post-Sept. 11 lung complications. On Tuesday, a day after he was buried on Long Island, police in Arizona announced they were conducting a homicide investigation.

Princiotta was flown home to New York from Phoenix, where his coffin rode atop a fire engine to the airport. When the plane landed at New York's LaGuardia Airport, 60 firefighters saluted as the flag-draped casket emerged from the aircraft.

He was buried Monday at the St. Charles Cemetery in Pine Lawn, Long Island, near his childhood home.

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