WHAT HAPPENED ON CHRISTMAS EVE
Joe Hofstetter lived close to the fire and his turnout gear was in his Blazer so when the call came in, before dawn on Christmas Eve, he drove right to the scene.
He got there first and could see the house was fully involved but it and neighboring homes looked decrepit or abandoned and some of them were summer homes and he was unsure if there was anyone inside or around.
So he pounded on the door.
Oddly, as he did so, a couple walked by, with their dog.
“Does anybody live here?” he shouted.
The answer was affirmative so he pounded some more and then ran to his Blazer to finish putting his gear on and by then the fire truck was pulling down Lake Road.
Mike Chiapperini was driving. Across the big hump between the seats was Ted Scardino.
Mike was named Firefighter of the Year two weeks before. He was a past chief of the department and a cop on his day job and his teen-aged son’s best friend, Tomasz Kaczowka, was driving the fly car coming onto the scene behind the big truck.
Tomasz was a year out of high school and had spent the night bunked in at the station to cover for older volunteers who were away for the holidays with family.
Behind the fly car was a Webster police cruiser with a young cop named Mark behind the wheel.
It’s been tough for the Webster PD in recent years. Tight budgets and high taxes and the department is eight cops short and a month ago they were talking about a referendum to disband the department.
Ted hopped out of the big truck and was putting on his gear. Tomasz got out of the fly car and began to suit up. Ted had his heavy air tank on and was, with the others, prepping to make an emergency entry into the burning home, to rescue anyone inside.
That’s when Mark, the cop in the last vehicle, heard a popping sound.
Sometimes in house fires like that, ammunition will cook off. Maybe somebody’s got some shotgun shells or something and they will burn and explode. It makes a popping sound. Most firefighters are familiar with it.
Behind Mark’s patrol car, another vehicle approached the scene. It was driven, coincidentally, by an off-duty police officer from across the county driving to work.
A high-power rifle round went through his windshield.
There was more popping and a split second of confusion.
Mike was still in the driver’s seat of the fire truck. Possibly he saw bullets strike. He shouted, “We’re getting fired at!”
His door faced the burning building. Apparently believing the firing was coming from that area, the south, he sprung over the massive console that divided the two front seats – the “dog house” – and lept out the passenger door, to the north.
But the gunman wasn’t on the driver’s side. He was on the passenger’s side. On an elevated berm meant to hold back the Lake Ontario storms.
Mike fell dead to the ground.
The microphone he had been holding dangled out the driver’s door of the fire truck.
Ted was in full turnout gear when he was shot through the lung and his shoulder blade was blown to pieces.
The gunman continued firing on Ted, hitting him in the knee, and he lay there, pretending to be dead, fearing the gunman would walk up and finish him off.
Tomasz was hit twice and fell mortally wounded. Joe, the one who had been first on the scene, was shot through the hip, shattering his pelvis.
Mark, in his patrol car, saw the firemen dropping. He grabbed his service rifle and lept out, saw what he believed were muzzle blasts on the berm, and fired toward them.
The man on the berm fired back.
Mark continued running forward, to cover, and returned fire.
The gunman fired again.
Mark returned fire.
Then there was silence. Perhaps a minute later, there was another shot. Mark did not see a muzzle blast.
Ted and Joe were down. Ted, his left arm and his right leg useless, his body weighed down by an air tank and heavy firefighting gear, crawled up underneath the truck, seeking cover.
Tomasz lay motionless beyond the back of the truck.
Joe, unable to walk, crawled toward the front of the truck, hoping its tires and engine block would shield him from the bullets.
Four firemen were down, an off-duty cop with blood flowing from his arm was fleeing in reverse up the street, an on-duty cop with a hot rifle in his hand radioed that he needed all the help he could get.
SWAT doesn’t come quick.
It has to muster and gear up and respond.
The best that could be done was to close off the road at both ends and wait.
Joe broke the silence with a transmission on the fire band. A city fireman at his day job, he reported that two of his colleagues were “DOA.” The nature of his injuries were such that he believed that, without immediate medical attention, “I will be joining them.”
He was told to wait.
He knew he couldn’t.
Lying on the frozen road, the temperature in the low 20s, pulling the microphone to his mouth, he was calm, cool and collected. Completely professional. While his life blood hemorrhaged from him.
He was told to wait.
He knew he couldn’t.
So he pulled himself up into the driver’s door of the fire truck. He hunched his broken body below the line of the dash, his left hand on the steering wheel, his right hand pushing the gas pedal, he tried to drive the truck down the road and out of the kill zone.
But he couldn’t see, and it didn’t go very far before it hung up on a retaining wall.
As it pulled away, it rode over Ted, the wheels missing him but taking from him his cover and concealment. Unsure of the location or the intentions of the gunman, Ted lay there in the cold, completely exposed, pretending to be dead.
Police officers and ambulances staged in large numbers at both ends of Lake Road, but the unaccounted for gunman kept them all outside the perimeter.
Joe, hunched under the dash of the fire truck, radioed his plans and concerns. He decided if he was going survive, he had to get out of there. And if he was going to get out of there, he would have to get himself out.
As he tried to figure out how to do that, the dog-walking couple came by again.
So out of synch with everything.
A raging house fire, men lying in the street, volleys of shots having only recently been fired, and they calmly walked their dog.
Joe waved to them.
He pantomimed to them.
Not wanting to let the gunman know where he was, or that he was alive, Joe pointed to his Blazer, and pointed at the dog walkers and made a driving motion with his hands, silently trying to communicate to these passersby his need.
The man got in Joe’s Blazer, drove it up beside the fire truck, left the door open, and walked away.
Joe radioed a description of his vehicle, and the license plate number, and said he was coming out. Then he dragged himself up into his truck and sped toward the ambulance lights in the distance.
Mark, the Webster cop who had exchanged shots with the gunman, knew none of this. His radio only got the police frequency, he couldn’t hear Joe’s broadcasts on the fire frequency.
It may have taken an hour for the sheriff’s armored personnel carrier to get on scene. As soon as it did, an ad hoc posse of officers with rifles squeezed in and pushed through the perimeter, coming to the aid of the fallen firemen.
There was an East Rochester cop, a man from the Border Patrol, a state trooper, two deputies and a Webster cop.
They weren’t SWAT, but they were there, and they went in the moment they could.
They came to Tomasz first, on the north shoulder of the road. They poured out, surrounded the fallen fireman, and hefted him into the APC.
Ted and Mike were 50 yards to the west.
Ted was in the center of the road. Mike was on the north shoulder.
They came to Ted and cut him out of his air tank and turnout gear and lifted him in beside Tomasz.
Mike’s wound was obviously fatal, and the APC spun around and left him there.
His friend of 20 years, the police chief, would choke up as he announced his death at the press conference in the middle of the day.
It turned out that Mark, the cop with the rifle, probably stopped the horror.
He didn’t hit the gunman, but he interrupted him. The plan had apparently been to wipe out firemen as they came down the road. When the gunman’s mother died in October, a sister had asked that donations go to the fire department, instead of the family, and maybe that focused the gunman’s insane evil.
It was fish in a barrel for those firefighters, and good men died.
But it would have been more, probably a lot more, if the fourth car in hadn’t been a Webster cop with a rifle. The best police can reconstruct is that the gunman, shaken and put off his plan by Mark’s returning fire, ran out behind the berm, alongside the lake where he had grown up, and shot himself in the head.
They would later find his sister’s body in the char of the burned house, across the driveway from where, in 1980, he had beaten their grandmother to death with a hammer.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2013