Webster tragedy: 'Unthinkable, unspeakable'

9:55 PM, Dec 24, 2012   |    comments
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A teddy bear has been placed in front of the West Webster Fire Dept., Monday, Dec. 24, 2012 in honor of those firefighters hurt and dead. MARIE DE JESUS DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE PHOTOGRAPHER

In the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Eve, William Spengler Jr., who in 1980 beat his grandmother to death with a hammer, set fire to his home and car at 191 Lake Road in Webster, a suburb of Rochester. Spengler then burrowed into what police described as "a hollow," and lay in wait.

As firefighters arrived, he opened fire, killing a 19-year-old volunteer firefighter and a 20-year veteran of the Webster Police Department, while injuring two other firefighters and an off-duty Greece, N.Y. police officer.

Slain were volunteer firefighters Mike Chiapperini, 43, a Webster Police Department lieutenant and the department's public information officer, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19, a Monroe County 911 dispatcher.

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Spengler then shot himself. Police found his body on the Lake Ontario beach.

With the country already embroiled in a divisive debate over gun control, the Webster killings leapt to the forefront of national news and opinion. Social media was alit Monday with talk of the shootings, as the Webster fatalities emerged as one of the leading topics on Twitter.

But, for the Webster and Rochester region, the killings are personal, not political.

Two households expecting to celebrate Christmas instead find themselves grieving and asking why. The local men and women who risk their lives by dashing into burning homes now mourn brave colleagues. And, regardless of the joy so associated with the holidays, an emotional pall has settled in, a somber reminder of the fragility of life.

"It's Christmas Eve," said former Rochester mayor and Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, who attended a news conference Monday afternoon. "This is a day people are coming together to celebrate holidays. And this tragedy is just unthinkable and unspeakable."

With his suicide, Spengler leaves behind more questions than answers - just as Adam Lanza did by killing himself after his massacre at the Newtown, Conn., elementary school. And, just as in Newtown, the suicide of the killer leaves a community searching - perhaps to no end - for motive and meaning.

Regardless of those questions, there is certainty about what is lost today: Two men with public service in their very fiber.

"These people get up in the middle of the night to fight fires," said Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering. "They don't expect to be shot and killed."

Webster now is the scene of violence linked to house fires for two consecutive Decembers.

Last Dec. 7, authorities allege, 15-year-old Michael Pilato doused his home with gasoline and set it ablaze, killing his father and two brothers, 16 and 12. His mother and 13-year-old sister escaped with injuries.

He is being prosecuted as an adult in a trial scheduled for January.

West Webster firefighters were the first responders last year, too.

Sliver of land

On a day in which malls and supermarkets would later fill with last-minute shoppers, the streets were largely empty Monday as the volunteer firefighters answered the 5:35 a.m. call for a house and car fire at 191 Lake Road.

Nestled on the sliver of land between Lake Ontario and Irondequoit Bay, the three-bedroom home - built almost a century ago - was aflame when the West Webster Volunteer Fire Department arrived.

Instead of combatting the fire, the volunteers found themselves targets.

Armed with a rifle and a pistol, Spengler reeled off multiple shots, felling Chiapperini and Kaczowka and injuring firefighters Joseph Hofstetter and Theodore Scardino.

Webster police and their law enforcement brethren from around the region swarmed to Lake Road, engaging in a short-lived firefight with Spengler.

An off-duty Greece police officer, John Ritter, was driving behind a firetruck on Lake Road when at least two rounds hit his car, one piercing the windshield and the other striking his engine block, according to Greece Police Chief Todd Baxter.

Ritter backed out of the area, jumped out of his truck and prevented any other motorists or firefighters from entering the "kill zone," Baxter said. Hit by shrapnel, Ritter received minor injuries to his arm and left chest.

Some time before 6 a.m., all went quiet - Spengler likely then dead at his own hand.

A SWAT team evacuated some residents from Webster to the Irondequoit side of the bay, while other nearby residents - if out of the fire's path - were urged to stay secure in their homes.

New York State Police searched residents who were evacuated, ensuring that the gunman was not among them. Police tackled some fleeing residents.

Within hours, police provided assurances that the lakefront community was likely secure. From a State Police helicopter, they had spotted Spengler's corpse on the sandy shore.

It wasn't until around 11 a.m. when firefighters could again fight and control the swelling conflagration. The fire had spread to eight other houses.

By then, the eyes of the media and the world were on Webster, the latest American community to be associated with guns, mental illness and violence.

'Mental health issues'

Of Spengler, Pickering said Monday that "I'm certain there were some mental health issues."

Spengler beat his grandmother to death with a hammer in 1980, and spent more than 17 years in state prison. He apparently had been no trouble while on parole between 1998 and 2006, when he left parole supervision.

What snapped with Spengler may never be known. According to sources, a dispute with his sister could have sparked his actions Monday. His sister, who lived at the same house, had not been located Monday, Pickering said.

As a convicted felon, Spengler could not legally own firearms. Pickering said police are investigating how he came into possession of the guns found near his body.

The two wounded West Webster firefighters - Joseph Hofstetter, 33, and Theodore Scardino, 48 - continue to recuperate. Both were in guarded condition.

Hofstetter suffered a severe bullet wound to his pelvis. Scardino was shot twice, hit in the left shoulder and right knee.

"They both have significant injuries," said Dr. Nicole Stassen, the trauma surgeon who is treating them at Kessler Burn and Trauma Center at Strong Memorial Hospital.

But Stassen, who gave a briefing about their conditions at a midday news conference, noted: "They are both awake, alert - with good blood pressures."

Hofstetter, Stassen said, suffered a very bad injury to the pelvis and underwent emergency surgery. "Some of the fragments ... did get into his abdominal cavity, and although he was fortunate that it didn't hit intestine, it came very close."

The bullet, she noted, was embedded in one of Hofstetter's spinal bones but he could move his limbs.

Scardino's most severe injury resulted from a bullet hitting him in the left shoulder and going through the upper portion of his left lung.

"It caused a lot of bruising on that left lung. It went very near the blood vessels that go to his left arm," Stassen said.

Global attention

Throughout Monday, the tale of Webster's killings spread via the Internet and the unyielding media attention. International news site focused on yet the latest gun-related tragedy in the U.S.

Headlines on the Web blared about the slayings, this violence coming on the heels of the weekend burials of a 7-year-old and two 6-year-old Newtown victims.

"Ambushed," shouted the online headline from the New York Post. "Gunman Kills 2 Firefighters in NY, Police Say," reported the more restrained Washington Post.

The violence was the lead Web story for the BBC.

Meanwhile, the flag at the West Webster Fire Department returned to half-staff. And volunteers there sought solace and consolation.

"Each one of the firefighters is comforting each other," said fire district Commissioner Pat Morris.

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

The fire, completely extinguished by early evening, destroyed seven houses Monday. Even among some of the unscathed homes, residents may not be able to return until after Christmas because the power was switched off to dozens of houses and the investigation is continuing.

By noon Monday, members of the community were stopping by the West Webster fire station to drop off small comforts for the firefighters.

One woman pulled up in a truck and paused for a few moments watching the fire house while crying.

Another man dropped off a case of Genesee beer.

Jim DiTomaso, a retired firefighter from Florida, was in town for the holiday visiting his mother when he heard the news.

"I knew I had to do something for them," he said. "They're our brothers."

He left a wreath at the station to honor the fallen firefighters.

When he first heard of the Webster fire, Chuck Scardino wondered about his cousin, Theodore Scardino, who is married and has two children.

He had a gut feeling that Theodore was among the first responders. But he was shocked when he learned that his cousin was among those shot.

"I couldn't believe this could happen to any volunteer - especially a firefighter," Scardino said.

Includes reporting by Rochester Democrat and Chronicle staff writers Victoria Freile, James Goodman, Meaghan McDermott, Jessica Alaimo, David Andreatta, Tiffany Lankes, Patti Singer, and Sean Lahman.

Copyright © 2012 www.democratandchronicle.com. All rights reserved.

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