A West Webster firefighter carries the program during the funeral mass for fellow West Webster firefighter Tomasz Kaczowka at St. Stanislaus Church in Rochester, New York, Monday December 31, 2012. Kaczowka was killed along with firefighter Michael Chiapperini when responding to a fire on Lake Road in Webster, New York on Monday December 24, 2012, where William Spengler shot at first responders. Two other firefighters were injured while seven house burned. (image by Jamie Germano)
By Justin Murphy Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle
WEBSTER, N.Y. -- Even for dedicated firefighters, the call to duty before dawn on a chilly Christmas Eve was unwelcome.
But they were heartened to think they would be finished with the job in time for breakfast.
"I figured I'd be back home in an hour," Joseph Hofstetter said. "Obviously, that's not the way things went."
Instead, a routine call turned into a town's tragedy. William Spengler Jr. shot two firefighters after he set a fire and lay in wait for them; they later died. Two others who survived gave their first public comments Wednesday.
Hofstetter, 33, and Ted Scardin, 48, described a chaotic scene, not knowing where the bullets were coming from or who was shooting them.
Hofstetter, a 14-year volunteer for West Webster Fire Department, said he arrived first at the scene in his own vehicle. Scardino arrived soon after with Michael Chiapperini in a pumper truck; 19-year-old Tomasz Kaczowka came in a department SUV.
The two men said they were confused at first to hear popping sounds and thought it might be from the car on fire. Chiapperini, a lieutenant in the Webster Police Department, knew better.
"Within a second of the first pop, Chip said, 'We're getting shot at,' " Scardino said. Chiapperini then dove from the driver's seat through the passenger window and ran toward the back of the pumper.
Chiapperini and Kaczowka both died in the ambush.
Scardino said he was shot in the shoulder while peeking toward the house around the back corner of the truck. He lay underneath it, playing dead and assessing the damage. Five minutes later, he was shot again, this time in the leg.
He said he believes Spengler had thrown bottles of gas at the pumper and was shooting to blow it up. The second shot ricocheted into his leg.
Meanwhile, Hofstetter, who was shot in the pelvis, was talking to dispatchers on the radio and trying to escape in the pumper truck.
"I was in pain, but it wasn't a factor at the time," he said. "Adrenaline kind of took over. It had a calming effect on me."
He stood on the outside step with his one good leg, trying to steer with his right hand and push the gas pedal with his left.
It didn't work. The pumper crashed and Hofstetter managed instead to flee west in his own vehicle.
Hofstetter hadn't realized Scardino was hiding beneath the pumper; his aborted escape left his colleague, shot twice, in the open.
The 16-year volunteer lay there bleeding for more than an hour, alternately chilled by the December weather and scorched -- second-degree burns on his head -- from the burning houses.
That long, lonely wait for help remains vivid in his memory.
"I just lay there wondering what would be next," he said. "There was nobody around. I didn't hear anything. I didn't know what was going on."
A SWAT team finally extracted him at 7:15 a.m., 90 minutes after being shot.
Scardino and Hofstetter, who both go to physical therapy several days a week, have been back to the area and come to the West Webster firehouse as often as they can.
They both intend to resume firefighting as soon as physically possible -- Hofstetter works for the Rochester Fire Department -- but acknowledged the incident would stay with them throughout their careers.
"It's going to be strange," Scardino said. "(Getting shot at) is something you never thought of. Now you may be looking over your shoulder when you respond to a call."
They also expressed gratitude for the support they've gotten locally and from around the world. Hofstetter said he read every one of the innumerable get-well cards that came to him in the hospital.
"We lost a lot that day," he said. "But your support has made it a lot easier for all of us."