A house burns in Webster, N.Y., where an ex-convict started a blaze and began… (Jamie Germano / Democrat…)
WEBSTER, N.Y. — Two firefighters lay in the road, shot. Two others were seriously wounded.
"We are being shot at, multiple firemen down, multiple firemen shot," one firefighter radioed early Monday. "I am shot. I think it was an assault rifle. We have multiple firemen down."
One police officer said he saw a man in dark clothing moving around in the morning darkness, and the flashes from his gun as he fired. Someone else radioed in from the scene, with what sounded like more gunshots in the background. The dispatcher responded with astonishment: "You want me to start the ambulance because firefighters are down?"
In dispatcher audio obtained by Reuters, officials said one wounded firefighter had taken cover in a crashed firetruck. A dispatcher reported that three firefighters were escaping in a Trailblazer as police prepared to take an armored vehicle into the area to evacuate residents.
A Christmas Eve fire in a stretch of homes along Lake Ontario in this Rochester, N.Y., suburb had become a deadly ambush that left two firefighters dead, two more injured and a quiet community burdened with grief and confusion. The fire turned into a seven-home conflagration.
And it happened little more than a week after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and six staffers dead along with the gunman and his mother. Newtown also set off a debate about gun control and mental health, with President Obama vowing to do everything in his power to prevent a similar incident. "Because what choice do we have?" he said. "We can't accept events like this as routine."
Webster police identified the shooter Monday as William Spengler, 62, a neighborhood resident and an ex-convict, whom they later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.
It was not the first time Spengler had killed someone. On July 18, 1980, he beat his 92-year-old grandmother to death with a hammer. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter, served almost 18 years in prison, and returned after his release, 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.... 'There's the guy who killed his grandmother with a hammer.'"
Spengler lived with his sister, Cheryl, who had not been accounted for by Monday evening. His mother, who died Oct. 7, had lived there too.
A former neighbor, Roger D. Vercruysse, said Spengler "was crazy about his mama" but despised his sister.
"He always told me he hated his sister," Vercruysse said. "We talked all the time. He seemed normal to me. The only thing I couldn't get out of him — why he hated his sister."
The inferno began when Spengler apparently ignited a car near his house, officials said, and he may have set his house on fire too.
A neighbor called 911, and the mayhem began. 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 for firefighters on a berm near his house.
"It appears that it was a trap," Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering said.
Spengler had armed himself with several weapons, none of which he was legally permitted to own because of his criminal history.
An unidentified Webster police officer, one of the first on the scene, exchanged gunfire with him and radioed that the gunman might be down.
Police encircled the area, but the raging fires and thick black smoke hindered them for hours. Pickering characterized the scene as chaos.
About 15 minutes after the shooting began, an officer reported hearing a single gunshot.
Spengler's body was found by late morning.
Webster is a quiet community with tidy winding streets, modest well-kept homes and towering maple trees, but more than a year ago another fire-related tragedy struck near the holidays. Last December, a 15-year-old boy was charged with setting fire to his house, killing his 71-year-old father and two brothers, 16 and 12.
Those killed Monday were Tomasz Kaczowka, 19, a West Webster firefighter and 911 dispatcher, and Mike Chiapperini, 43, a Webster police lieutenant and a fire department volunteer.
The two wounded men, Joseph Hofstetter and Theodore Scardino, faced recoveries that could take months, officials said. Hofstetter is a professional firefighter in Rochester.
At the West Webster fire station, firefighters 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, wreaths hung in a cupola and a Christmas tree was visible through a window.
Webster's residents and others around the country responded with an outpouring of support.
"I've personally gotten calls from across the nation," Pickering said. "This is a tragedy felt by all of us."
Pickering struggled to hold back tears, his voice cracking, as he discussed those who died. "We work with these people every day," he said. "They're like our brothers.
"These guys are all heroes. They're all heroes."
Hoeffel reported from Webster, N.Y., and Pearce from Los Angeles.