New York town's 'Firefighter of the Year' shot dead responding to blaze

POSTED: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 - 2:30pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 - 2:41pm

Seven weeks ago, Michael Chiapperini was in Long Island, helping those suffering after Superstorm Sandy. Two weeks ago, he was named "Firefighter of the Year" for his department in his upstate New York town of Webster.

Monday, he was dead.

A gunman -- later identified as William Spengler, 62 -- apparently set his home ablaze, took up a position on a nearby berm, then shot and killed Chiapperini and fellow firefighter Tomasz Kaczowka. Two other firefighters were wounded, as was an off-duty police officer who was driving through the area.

Why Spengler, an ex-felon who killed his grandmother in 1980, committed these crimes is unknown.

But authorities say there's no doubt about the quality of the people he killed on Christmas Eve.

"We work with these people everyday, they're like our brothers," Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering said of the firefighters shot. "It's terrible."

"These guys are all heroes."

Until Monday, Chiapperini was the person reporters would talk to about killings and other crimes. For the past two decades, he had been a member of the Webster Police Department, rising to the rank of lieutenant and serving as a spokesman.

He was promoted in August 2010, telling the hometown Webster Post, "I want to learn more about the administrative operations of the police department." The paper noted Chiapperini was a decorated police officer who had risen up through the ranks and was married with three children.

Chiapperini served his community outside of the police force.

As a volunteer, he also played an active part in the West Webster Fire Department -- one of three such departments in Webster, a town of about 43,000 people located about 10 miles east of Rochester.

"He's held every line office that the department has had" including chief, fire department spokesman Al Sienkiewicz said.

That includes a hands-on role in the department's Explorer program that encourages high school students to learn about firefighting and perhaps become volunteers themselves.

Chiapperini was also active on the front lines of fires, with his efforts in specific incidents earning him the department's "Firefighter of the Year" award earlier this month, Sienkiewicz said.

Service was a way of life for Chiapperini. For example, around Halloween, he and other firefighters from northern New York headed to Long Island to assist in recovery efforts in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

"He'd been down in Suffolk County to see the destruction, (then) he loses his life this morning, responding to help someone," Lt. Gov. Bob Duffy told reporters Monday in Webster.

"When you start looking at the two who lost their lives and the two that are fighting for their lives, (all are) just tremendous public servants."

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