Like hundreds of his fellow firefighters, Sal Princiotta ran to the rescue when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11. Months later, he was one of five men who rode bikes from New York to Pasadena, Calif., in a salute to those who lost their lives that day. Among the dead was his uncle, legendary New York City firefighter and rescue expert Deputy Chief Ray Downey.
His family, still aching from Downey’s death, is reeling again, with the loss of Princiotta, 43, who was found dead in his Scottsdale, Ariz., home on May 14. His family initially believed he died from respiratory problems that had plagued him since 9/11, but officials later ruled his death a homicide. The cause of death has not been released.
Yesterday, outside the home where Princiotta grew up in a sprawling, extended family living in six houses along Oak Street in Deer Park, his father and brothers spoke emotionally of a big-muscled man who frolicked like a kid with his many nieces and nephews; a devoted city firefighter forced from the job by failing health.
“When he was with a group of 10-year-olds, he was a 10-year-old,” said his brother Chuck, 53. “When he was with a group of firefighters, on a fire, he was right there … ready to go in.”
In the early 1980s, Princiotta, along with his cousins, future FDNY Battalion Chiefs Chuck and Joe Downey, ran drills in his uncle’s Oak Street backyard: lifting ladders, running with hoses and dragging weights to simulate pulling a person from a burning building.
“It wasn’t fun,” remembered Joseph Princiotta, 49, a Wall Street financial analyst who said he dodged such exertions. “With Uncle Ray, it was serious business. He was getting them ready.”
Like Ray Downey, Princiotta rushed to the towers on 9/11, where toxic fumes and debris scarred his lungs. That damage, and the devastating loss of Downey and 10 of his fellow firefighters with Engine 33, Ladder 9 on Great Jones Street in lower Manhattan, remained with him, relatives said.
“He was never married, and those guys really were like his family,” said brother Joseph. “It rocked all our worlds but especially his.”
Joseph said his little brother left the FDNY, not bitter but saddened by what he felt was a loss of camaraderie among the remaining crew.
“He retired believing it was the best thing,” Joseph said, adding that “his heart was so broken.”
Despite the increasing serious respiratory problems that sometimes landed him in the hospital, the athletic Princiotta remained active, traveling widely and pursuing his favorite hobbies, photography and golf.
He moved to Scottsdale in January, his father said, because he believed the hot, dry climate would help his lungs. He also wanted to be near one of his nephews, also named Salvatore, an Arizona State University senior who discovered his uncle’s body.
The family said the revelation days after Princiotta’s funeral that he was slain tore through the family.
“Having to tell my father that news, that was the worst thing I could imagine,” Chuck said. “It’s almost like going through the whole tragedy again.”
Ray Downey, FDNY legend
Deputy Chief Ray Downey was a 39-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department and a nationally recognized expert on urban search-and-rescue. One of the city’s most decorated firefighters, Downey, Sal Princiotta’s uncle, traveled extensively to train other departments to respond to disasters and led rescue teams after the Oklahoma City bombing and the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. His ability to sum up a complex rescue situation and his calm, focused demeanor, earned him the nickname “God” among his colleagues. He was 63 when he was killed directing rescue efforts in the north tower on Sept. 11, 2001.