WEBSTER, N.Y. -- Two firefighters lay in the road, shot. Two others had also been hit.
“We are being shot at, multiple firemen down, multiple firemen shot," one firefighter radioed in. "I am shot. I think it was an assault rifle. We have multiple firemen down.”
One police officer could see a man in dark clothing moving around in the morning darkness and the flashes from his gun when he fired. Someone else radioed in from the scene, with what sounded like more gunshots in the background, and the dispatcher responded to that call with disbelief in her voice: "You want me to start the ambulance because firefighters are down?"
This was not supposed to be a crime scene. It was early Monday morning on Christmas Eve, and the report of a fire in a stretch of lakefront homes along Lake Ontario in this Rochester, N.Y., suburb had turned into an ambush that left two firefighters dead, two more injured and a quiet community burdened with grief and confusion.
Webster police identified the shooter as William Spengler, 62, a neighborhood resident and an ex-con, whom they later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.
It was not the first time Spengler had killed someone here. On July 18, 1980, he beat his 92-year-old grandmother to death with a hammer in her home next door. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter, served 18 years in prison -- and then came back when he was released, unsettling the neighborhood.
“We knew that he had killed his grandmother and everything," said Janie Brennan, of Rochester, a former neighbor. "Everybody used to talk about it quietly: 'He’d already done his time,' things like that. People used to just be like, ‘There’s the guy who killed his grandmother with a hammer,’ and the person’s walking around."
Spengler lived in the house on Lake Road with his sister, Cheryl, who has not been accounted for. His mother, who also had lived there, died on Oct. 7.
And for reasons yet unknown to officials or to residents here, Spengler, who parole officials said had been having an uneventful life, apparently set a car near the house on fire and may also have set his house on fire.
Police said that a neighbor called 911 to report the flames, and the mayhem began soon after: An off-duty police officer from nearby Greece, N.Y., had been following a firetruck on its way to the scene when a bullet hit his windshield and his engine block, Greece Police Chief Todd Baxter told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
Spengler apparently lay in wait with several different weapons for the firefighters on a berm near his house, police said -- weapons he was not allowed to own as a convict. “It appears that it was a trap,” said Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering.
An unnamed Webster police officer, one of the first on the scene, exchanged gunfire with the shooter.
"I’m taking cover right now," the officer said in dispatch audio obtained by Reuters. "I can see him, he’s a little distance away right now. He’s gonna be across the street of the fire."
At little while later, the officer added, “Shots fired on my end. He went down, I don’t know if I hit him or not. He’s by a tree.” In another call, he added, "I could see the muzzle blast coming at me.... I fired four shots at him. I thought he went down."
Police then encircled the area, but were hampered for hours by the raging fires and thick black smoke, a situation that Pickering described as “chaos.” “We were chasing him around for a while,” he said.
In the dispatcher audio, officials said that one wounded firefighter had taken cover in a crashed firetruck; more than half an hour after the attack began, a dispatcher reported that three firefighters were escaping the area in a Trailblazer, as police prepared to take an armored vehicle in to evacuate residents.
At one point about 15 minutes after the shooting began, an officer reported hearing a single gunshot.
Spengler’s body was found late in the morning.
The shootings took place on a narrow strip of land, which the locals call the Sandbar, that separates Irondequoit Bay from Lake Ontario. Houses in the area, many quite old, are nestled tightly together.
Violence is not unheard of in this quiet, postwar bedroom community, with tidy winding streets, small, well-kept homes and towering maple trees, carved out of apple orchards. Last year, in the beginning of December, a 15-year-old boy was charged with setting fire to his house, killing his 71-year-old father and his two brothers, 16 and 12.
On Monday, the men who died were identified as Tomasz Kaczowka, a West Webster Fire Department firefighter and 911 dispatcher, and Mike Chiapperini, 43, a Webster Police Department lieutenant and a volunteer with the West Webster Fire Department.
Chiapperini, known as “Chip,” was a past fire chief of the West Webster department and just two weeks ago was named firefighter of the year. He had responded with the department’s Pumper 124 to Suffolk County after Hurricane Sandy. A 2010 Webster Volunteer Fire Department banquet featured a picture of Chiapperini with his wife, Kim.
Tomasz Kaczowka had volunteered with the department for little more than a year. According to a Facebook profile, he spoke Polish, German and English and was a soccer fan. In a recent profile photo, he was grinning with a headset on, posing with a plush doll of the Grinch wearing a Santa hat.
The grief over their deaths was immediate and swept through the community's firehouses. Elizabeth Coffey, 18, a journalism student and a volunteer at the nearby Sea Breeze Fire Department across the bay from Webster, said residents and businesses flooded the firehouse with homemade cookies and delivery pizzas after hearing rumors that evacuees were headed there, but there was little else to do.
"It was really sad to see people’s reactions down at the firehouse when they released the names," Coffey said, adding, “When people realized who they were, it was really upsetting, because it was people so many people down there have known forever.”
At the West Webster Fire Station, whose firefighters had responded to the call, the holiday spirit had been shattered by grief. Firefighters at the station declined to speak with a reporter. A large-screen TV showed footage from a news conference earlier in the day. Electric Christmas candles flickered in the windows, Christmas wreaths hung in the windows of a cupola and a Christmas trees was visible through a window.
The two wounded firefighters, Joseph Hofstetter and Theodore Scardino, were facing recoveries that could take months, officials said Monday. Hofstetter, who was in stable condition, was a professional firefighter with the department in Rochester.
Scardino, who was in guarded condition, had been with the department one or two years.
"Joseph Hofstetter ur a hero for saving all those people by alerting dispatch about the danger," tweeted Dave Hofstetter, who identified himself as Joseph's brother and who said his brother was the firefighter who reported the shooting. "Ur the best man I know."
By midday, officials said seven houses were destroyed. Firefighters were still fighting the fires and police had not been able to enter the houses to check for additional victims. “There may be other deaths,” police chief Pickering said. “We’re hoping we don’t find any additional bodies.”
Pickering said Webster’s residents and people around the country had responded with an outpouring of support. “I’ve personally gotten calls from across the nation,” he said. “This is a tragedy felt by all of us.”
Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy, Rochester’s former mayor and former police chief, said that he had not experienced a crime like this one in 29 years in law enforcement. “I’ve never seen anything like this, where firefighters were fired upon,” he said. “This tragedy is just unspeakable and unthinkable.”
He said he was in constant contact with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and expected he would have more to say about gun control after a period of mourning for the victims passed. “That time will come,” he said.
Pickering said the shooting underscored that the nation not only needs to deal with the issue of gun control, but mental health, noting the emphasis placed on de-institutionalizing the mentally ill.
“I think we’ve swung too far,” he said.
Pickering said that his officers and the firefighters were grieving. “This is a terrible loss to our community,” he said. “Unfortunately, tragedies like this pull people together stronger than ever.”
Asked about the firefighters who died, Pickering said that he did not know them all personally, but said he worked alongside them. “We work with these people every day,” he said, his voice cracking and his face quavering as he struggled to hold back tears. “They’re like our brothers.
“There guys are all heroes,” he said. “They’re all heroes.”
Hoeffel reported from Webster, N.Y., and Pearce from Los Angeles.