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January 2, 2013

Town of Webster remembers fallen firefighters

By Linda Quinlan
Penfield Post

WEBSTER, N.Y. — The community is still reeling from the events of early Monday morning, Dec. 24, Christmas Eve.

"The town of Webster is a resilient community, but this will hit home for a long time to come," said Webster Supervisor Ron Nesbitt. "We will go on, but we will not forget."

Law enforcement officials say William Spengler, who was convicted of killing his grandmother about 30 years ago and was a resident at 191 Lake Road, Webster, just doors from the Irondequoit Bay outlet and the Irondequoit town line, obtained high-powered guns and started a car fire to lure firefighters to where he could shoot them.

Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering said his motive may never be known.

Past West Webster Fire Chief Mike Chiapperini, 43, also a Webster Police Department lieutenant, and Tomasz Kaczowka, just 19, were among the first on the scene. A single shot killed Chiapperini, while two struck and killed Kaczowka.

Two other West Webster firefighters, Joseph Scardino and Joseph Hofstetter, were struck and seriously injured.

And members of this community seek healing and solstice in their shared grief.

'He cared so much'

Surprisingly, Nesbitt, a Webster native, said he knew William Spengler from their youth. He, Spengler and current Webster Councilman Barry Deane all played on the same Babe Ruth baseball team as teens, Nesbitt recalled. Nesbitt said he also remembers Spengler from Webster schools, but that after a time, he believes Spengler went to school in Rochester.

"I'm still shocked anyone could do anything so horrific," Nesbitt said. "To think that four volunteer firemen going to put out a fire could be shot. Well, it's just ridiculous. I can't put into words my frustration."

As was heard over and over throughout the week that followed the tragedy, it was difficult to say "merry" Christmas this year.

The year ended with the funerals of two Webster heroes, Chiapperini and Kaczowka, and with the community - not just in Webster but throughout Monroe County, New York State, the entire U.S. and the world - wondering, like Nesbitt, how the unthinkable acts of Dec. 24 could have happened at all.

Irondequoit Police Chief Richard Boyan said the call for the fire on Lake Road that day came in just at change of shift for his department.

When they heard that shots were being fired, the officers from both platoons (or shifts) left immediately and went to the scene, he said.

Irondequoit officers took positions around the area to secure it, Boyan said, then closed down the nearby Irondequoit Bay Outlet Bridge, between Irondequoit and Webster, to traffic. Irondequoit officers did cover calls for Webster police for a short period of time, as the investigation and the horrible news was absorbed, Boyan said, and he offered the department's ongoing help.

"They (Webster) are our neighbors; we certainly want to help in any way we can," Boyan said. "Most of my people know their people."

Lt. Chiapperini, Nesbitt said, "was the type of guy who cared immensely for the town. He would give you the shirt offhis back, he cared so much."

Chiapperini was just promoted from Sergeant to Lieutenant in the Webster Police Department in August 2010.

Nesbitt said Lt. Chiapperini also led the safety committee at Webster Town Hall, and was often bringing ideas for how to make the work environment more safe.

"He was all about community. he gave his all to this community," Nesbitt said.

Fondly recalled

Being both a police of-ficer and a volunteer fire-fighter can be a common thread, said Richard Tantalo, Deputy Chief of the Irondequoit Police Department. "That drive to provide public service seems to carry through," he said.

Tantalo said he knew Lt. Chiapperini, with the Webster force for 19 years, through the police radio and mutual investigations.

"I certainly knew he was very dedicated to his community. In more ways than one, obviously," Tantalo said.

Boyan added that Lt. Chiapperini was also very active on many area law enforcement committees and was always a great source of information.

"He was always a professional and friendly individual," Boyan said. Lt. Chiapperini was also a past chief of the West Webster Fire Department, for which he volunteered for 25 years, and an advisor to its Explorer post. Just two weeks ago, he was named the department's 2012 firefighter of the year. His son Nicholas also volunteers with the department. He also leaves his wife, Kimberly, and two young daughters, Kacie and Kylie.

Tomasz Kaczowka, who has a large family in Rochester and Poland, was considered everyone's "little brother." He had just graduated from Webster Thomas High School in 2011 and worked the overnight shift as an emergency dispatch operator for the City of Rochester and Monroe County.

Immediately after the Dec. 24 incident, Hofstetter and Scardino were listed in guarded condition in the intensive care unit at Strong Hospital. A trauma surgeon said both men have "significant" injuries. They have since been upgraded to satisfactory condition. Hofstetter has a serious spine injury and a bullet lodged on his spine bone. Scardino was shot twice, including once in the chest area.

Besides the firefighters, other innocent victims Dec. 24 were seven other homeowners, besides Spengler's own home, that were destroyed by fire.

Picking up the pieces

The town will work with the neighbors who lost their homes, Nesbitt said, noting that under town zoning, they can rebuild on the same foundations, if they want to. A total of 33 residents in the bayside area of Lake Road were evacuated from their homes during the Dec. 24 fire, which Pickering described as "an inferno." Firefighters couldn't immediately battle the blaze due to the gunman. Spengler was eventually found on the beach, dead, from a self-inflicted gunshot.

Nesbitt praised Pickering's outstanding work through the whole ordeal.

"It appears it was a trap," Pickering said at one of many press conferences last week. "He (Spengler) laid in wait with armament."

He said the Town Board will promote another Webster officer to Lieutenant, to succeed Chiapperini, and hire a replacement officer "at the appropriate time."

Another of the emergency responders who was injured Dec. 24 was an off-duty Greece Police Officer, John Ritter, who happened to be in the area, on his way to work.

Al Sienkiewicz, public information officer for the West Webster Fire Department, said all four of the firefighters - the two killed and the two injured - were involved with the department's Explorer Post. He said Scardino was a transfer from Irondequoit's Laurelton Fire Department. "This is a tragedy that is felt by all of us - deeply," Pickering said.

Both Pickering and Nesbitt said they have been taking calls from across the nation. Nesbitt said he has even received calls from as far as the United Kingdom and Germany.

New York's Lt. Governor, Bob Duffy, was part of a press conference the afternoon of Dec. 24, summed up the situation: "I've never in my career seen anything like this. It is unspeakable and unthinkable that this could happen. (but) goodness will overcome this. the good things happening (since) will trump the evil that went on."

"We're going to pick up the pieces and go forward," Pickering agreed.

"We're going to pick up the pieces and go forward." -Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering "The horrific events this Christmas Eve has taxed the members of the West Webster Fire Department and entire Monroe County fire service community. It is events like this that bring us closer together as a fire service community dedicated to the preservation of life and property. As our department begins the healing process we ask for the community's indulgence and prayers. Your expressions of love, concern and wellbeing for the family members of our deceased brothers is gratefully acknowledged. As we move forward in the coming days we look to the community for strength and guidance to carry on our mission." - Statement from West Webster Fire Department "Lt. Chiapperini was the type of guy who cared immensely for the town. He would give you the shirt off his back, he cared so much." - Webster Supervisor Ron Nesbitt

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