Gunman Opened Fire, Killing Two Firefighters On Duty

House fires burned in Webster, N.Y., near Rochester Monday morning
AP Photo
House fires burned in Webster, N.Y., near Rochester Monday morning
AP Photo

Two firefighters were on Monday shot dead while two others were wounded in New York state when a gunman opened fire as the emergency personnel responded to a Christmas Eve blaze in an apparent set-up, authorities said.

There were a house and a car burning. There was also a waiting killer, who had stationed himself like a sniper on a berm above the firefighters.

An off-duty police officer from nearby Greece, N.Y., who was on his way to work, was wounded when he and his car were hit by shrapnel.

The incident – which comes as debate rages in the United States about gun control following the Newtown school massacre – happened shortly before 6am in Webster, a suburb of Rochester.

“The responding firefighters, when they pulled up at the scene, were fired upon by one or more shooters,” Webster police chief Gerald Pickering told a press conference.

“Four of the firefighters were shot. Two are deceased, two were transported to area hospitals… it’s still an active crime scene.”

For a few hours, the scene was chaotic: flames ignited adjacent houses as the police frantically searched for the gunman. They would find him dead near the beach, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was identified as William Spengler, 62, a man with a lengthy criminal record, who lived in the burning house.

In 1981, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter for bludgeoning his 92-year-old grandmother to death with a hammer. He was imprisoned until 1998.

Authorities said they were unaware of a motive, but Pickering suggested that “there were certainly mental health issues involved.”

Grieving, Chief Pickering said in an interview: “We know that people are slipping through the cracks, not getting the help they need. And I suspect that this gentleman slipped through the cracks. Maybe he should have been under more intense supervision, maybe he should not have been in the public, maybe he should have been institutionalized, having his problems dealt with.”

The ambush shook residents of Webster, a town 12 miles northeast of Rochester.

“These people get up in the middle of the night to go put out fires,” Chief Pickering said of his lost firefighters. “They don’t expect to be shot and killed.”

At a news conference, he choked up repeatedly when giving the names of the crew members. The two men killed were Michael J. Chiapperini, 43, a local police lieutenant who owned a window-tinting business, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19, a 911 dispatcher for Monroe County.

The two wounded firefighters, Theodore Scardino and Joseph Hofstetter, were listed in guarded to stable condition at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. Mr. Hofstetter suffered an injury to his pelvis. Mr. Scardino was shot twice and had shoulder and lung wounds. The wounded off-duty officer, John Ritter, was treated and released from another hospital.

The incident in Webster comes 10 days after the shooting rampage at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 20 children, aged six and seven, and six adults were killed.

The shooter, Adam Lanza, killed his mother at their home before heading to the school, where he eventually took his own life.

The Newtown shooting has revived debate in the United States on the country’s gun laws, which are far more lax than in most other developed nations.

President Barack Obama said he would support a new bill to ban assault rifles, and has put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of a panel looking at a wide range of other measures, from school security to mental health.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has pledged to introduce a bill in January that would ban at least 100 military-style semi-automatic assault weapons, and would curb the transfer, importation and the possession of such arms.

The United States has suffered an explosion of gun violence over the last three decades, including 62 mass shooting incidents since 1982. [AFP,NY Times]