Update: Gunman who shot firefighters killed grandma

4:43 PM, Dec 24, 2012   |    comments
Two NY firefighters are dead and two others are injured after they were shot while responding to a house fire.
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Written by Victoria Freile and Doug Stanglin, USA Today

WEBSTER, N.Y. – A gunman ambushed firefighters at a house fire in the Rochester suburb of Webster, N.Y., early Monday, killing two firemen and injuring two others before killing himself.

Seven homes were destroyed as firefighters waited for police to secure the scene.

The gunman, who shot and killed himself at the scene, was identified as William Spengler, who was arrested by Webster police in 1980 for beating his 92-year-old grandmother to death with a hammer.

Spengler, 62, served 17 years in New York State prison on manslaughter charges, police officials said.

His 67-year-old sister, with whom he lived, is missing.

Police Chief Gerald Pickering, choking up frequently as he spoke to reporters, said all four firefighters who responded to the call at 5:35 a.m. ET came under fire when they drove up.

The dead are Lt. Mike Chiapperini, 43, a volunteer firefighter and the Webster Police Department's public information officer, and Tomasz Kaczowka. Chiapperini was named "Firefighter of the Year" two weeks ago.

"It is a very difficult situation," Pickering said, his voice quavering.

"People get up in the middle of the night to fight fires," he said. "They don't expect to be shot and killed."

The injured firefighters are Joseph Hofsetter and Theodore Scardino. Hofsetter suffered a severe injury to his pelvis. Scardino was shot twice, injuring his shoulder and lung. An off-duty police officer who was driving by at the time also was injured by flying shrapnel.

A Facebook page was set up in honor of the Webster first-responders.

Pickering said Spengler had staked out a position with an arsenal of several firearms on a berm overlooking the scene.

"It appears that it was a trap," Pickering said. "There was a car in a house that was engulfed in flames, probably set by Mr. Spengler, who lay in wait with his armaments and shot the first responders."

"Looking at his history, obviously this is an individual who has a lot of problems, who killed his grandmother, and I'm sure there were mental health issues," Pickering said.

He said Spengler's sister, Cheryl Spengler, was unaccounted for. He lived in the house with his sister and mother, Arline, who died in October.

The 911 call, he said, was apparently called in by a resident in the neighborhood of small, lakeside vacation homes.

The police officer at the scene who first radioed in to report the presence of a shooter said he "could see the muzzle blast coming at me."

"It's going to be a rifle or a shotgun, high-powered," the officer said, according to a tape of the call. "He's right across from the house on fire."

Pickering said the first Webster police officer who arrived chased Spengler and exchanged gunfire with him, authorities said. The officer "in all likelihood saved many lives," he said.

Seven homes were eventually destroyed, as firefighters let the flames spread until the area was secured. At one point, a SWAT team escorted some residents to a bus that took them from the neighborhood.

At West Webster Fire Department, the flag outside was lowered to half-staff.

"These firemen are part of our family. You go into a fire with these guys. To see them go down with something like this is totally unexpected. We are in shock," said fire district commissioner Billy Gross.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the State Police and Office of Emergency Management were working with local authorities.

"Volunteer firefighters and police officers were injured, and two were taken from us as they once again answered the call of duty," Cuomo said in a statement. "We as the community of New York mourn their loss as now two more families must spend the holidays without their loved ones."

Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, issued a statement calling the calculated shooting of firefighters "both senseless and cruel."

"The firefighters who responded today were performing a selfless, meaningful service to their community, unaware that a cold-hearted maniac was planning to ambush them and take their lives," the statement said. "Coming on the heels of the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, and on Christmas Eve, this shooting is even harder to comprehend."

Webster resident Michael Damico was among those neighbors who were evacuated.

"The whole strip's been evacuated," he said. "They're evacuating all of the houses and going through them."

Damico's son woke him up around 8 a.m. to tell him about the fire that was burning down the street.

"We looked out the window and we saw the SWAT team and everyone around," he said.

"Some people on this bus already watched their houses burn," Damico said. "They're not happy."

Webster, with a population of 5,000, is located northeast of Rochester.

Freile, with The Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, reported from Webster; Stanglin, from McLean, VA.

Previous story

A gunman ambushed firefighters responding to a house fire in the Rochester suburb of Webster, N.Y., early Monday, killing two firemen and injuring two others.

The shooter was later found dead of gunshot wounds near the scene, according to Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering.

Pickering, choking up frequently as he spoke to reporters, said all four firefighters who responded to the call at 5:35 a.m. ET came under fire when they drove up.

The dead are Lt. Mike Chiapperini, 43, a volunteer firefighter and the Webster Police Department's public information officer, and Tomasz Kaczowka.

"It is a very difficult situation," Pickering said, his voice quavering.

"People get up in the middle of the night to fight fires," he said. "They don't expect to be shot and killed."

The injured firefighters are Joseph Hofsetter and Theodore Scardino. Hofsetter suffered a severe injury to his pelvis. Scardino was shot twice, injuring his shoulder and lung.

An off-duty police officer who was driving by at the time also was injured by flying shrapnel.

Pickering said the case is still under investigation but "does appear to be a trap that was set for first responders."

The fire started in one of the small, lakeside vacation homes and spread to two others and a car, officials said.

Four homes were eventually destroyed, as firefighters let the flames spread until the area was secured. At one point, a SWAT team escorted some residents to a bus that took them from the neighborhood.

Pickering said the unidentified shooter was found dead of a gunshot wound outside one of the houses.

He said it was not immediately clear whether the wounds were self-inflicted or the result of gunfire from police.

PIckering also said he could not determine yet whether the gunman set the fire and called in the 911 alarm.

At West Webster Fire Department, the flag outside was lowered to half-staff.

"These firemen are part of our family. You go into a fire with these guys. To see them go down with something like this is totally unexpected. We are in shock," said fire district commissioner Billy Gross.

Webster resident Michael Damico was among those neighbors who were evacuated.

"The whole strip's been evacuated," he said. "They're evacuating all of the houses and going through them."

Damico's son woke him up around 8 a.m. to tell him about the fire that was burning down the street.

"We looked out the window and we saw the SWAT team and everyone around," he said.

"Some people on this bus already watched their houses burn," Damico said. "They're not happy."

Webster, with a population of 5,000, is located northeast of Rochester.

The police chief in Webster, N.Y., says that four firefighters were shot while responding to a blaze in the town near Rochester and that two are dead.

Chief Gerald Pickering says "one or more shooters" fired at the firefighters Monday morning. Officials say they had arrived at the scene of the blaze near the Lake Ontario shore around 6 a.m.

Officials say a fire started in one home and spread to two others and a car. Officials say there is no active shooter at the scene.

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