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As the nation still mourns the campus massacre this month at a Connecticut elementary school, now a gunman in upstate New York set a trap and has shot four firefighters, killing two and seriously injuring two others, as they responded to a blaze this morning.
“It does appear that it was a trap that was set for first responders,” said a tearful Gerald Pickering, police chief of Webster, N.Y.
“These are volunteers who get up in the middle of the night to fight fires, they don’t expect to be shot and killed.”
Shots were initially fired at West Webster firefighters as they arrived at 5:35 a.m. to battle the blaze along Lake Road in Webster, some 10 miles west of Rochester.
The apparent gunman was found dead in an area outside the scene, but it remains unclear if he took his own life or was killed by a police officer.
Pickering says the gunman, identified as 62-year-old William Spengler, was a convicted felon who served 17 years in prison for killing his grandmother more than three decades ago.
Spengler is said to have positioned himself in a higher area where he could fire down on first responders.
The dead are Lt. Mike Chiapperini, 43, a volunteer firefighter and the Webster Police Department’s public information officer, and Tomasz Kaczowka, who was in his early 20s.
The shooting comes just 10 days after the elementary-school massacre in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six adults.
“As you can see, emotions are extremely high,” Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks told reporters. “There’s a heightened awareness to this kind of violence in light of what happened in Connecticut, and I just want everyone to remember: It’s Christmas Eve. We have first responders, and we have families who are in pain and crisis today and we need to as a community keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also addressed today’s shooting in Webster, calling it horrific and senseless.
“Volunteer firefighters and police officers were injured and two were taken from us as they once again answered the call of duty,” he said. “New York’s first responders are true heroes as they time and again selflessly rush toward danger in order to keep our families and communities safe.”
Rob Boutillier, the town’s fire marshal, said firefighters first arrived at the Webster fire before 6 a.m., and the gunfire prevented them from extinguishing the flames.
Police then sent in SWAT teams to evacuate nearby homes, and by noon, flames had engulfed four homes.
“It took a while to make it safe … to put out the fires,” Pickering said.
“I’m not aware of anything like this happening in Webster, obviously not a firefighter being fired upon,” added Boutillier.
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper spoke with Webster resident Michael Damico, who was among the neighbors forced from their homes.
“The whole strip’s been evacuated,” Damico told the paper. “They’re evacuating all of the houses and going through them.”
His son had awakened him around 8 a.m. to tell him about the fire burning down the street.
“We looked out the window and we saw the SWAT team and everyone around,” he said.
“Some people on this bus already watched their houses burn,” Damico said. “They’re not happy.”