2 firefighters die in ambush at blazing US house

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Associated Press

Posted on December 24, 2012 at 2:06 PM

WEBSTER, New York (AP) — A gunman ambushed four volunteer firefighters responding to an intense pre-dawn house fire Monday morning in New York State, killing two before ending up dead himself, authorities said. Police used an armored vehicle to evacuate more than 30 nearby residents.

The gunman fired at the firefighters when they arrived at the blaze near the Lake Ontario shore in the town of Webster, Police Chief Gerald Pickering said. The first police officer who arrived chased the suspect and exchanged gunfire with him, authorities said.

"It does appear it was a trap" for the first responders to the fire, Pickering said at a news conference.

Authorities didn't say how the gunman died or whether anyone might have died in the fire itself.

One of the dead firefighters was also a town police lieutenant; it wasn't clear whether he returned fire. An off-duty police officer who was driving by was injured by shrapnel, Pickering said.

"These people get up in the middle of the night to go put out fires; they don't expect to be shot and killed," Pickering said.

The fire started in one home and spread to two others and a car, officials said. The gunfire initially kept firefighters from battling the blazes. Police say four homes were destroyed and four damaged.

The fire department learned of the blaze early Monday after a report of a car and house on fire on a narrow peninsula, Monroe County Sheriff Patrick O'Flynn said.

The fire appeared from a distance as a pulsating ball of flame glowing against the early morning sky, flames licking into treetops and reflecting on the water, with huge bursts of smoke billowing away in a brisk wind.

Two of the firefighters arrived on a fire engine and two in their own vehicles, Pickering said. After the gunman fired, one of the wounded men managed to flee, but the other three couldn't because of flying gunfire.

A police armored vehicle was used to recover two of the men, and eventually it evacuated 33 people from nearby homes, the police chief said.

The dead men were identified as Police Lt. Michael Chiapperini, 43, the Webster Police Department's public information officer; and Tomasz Kaczowka, also an emergency dispatcher, whose age was not released.

Pickering described Chiapperini as a "lifetime firefighter" with nearly 20 years with the department, and called Kaczowka a "tremendous young man."

The two wounded firefighters, Joseph Hofsetter and Theodore Scardino, were in guarded condition, authorities said. Both were awake and alert and are expected to recover.

Hofsetter was hit once in the pelvis, and the bullet lodged in his spine, authorities said. Scardino was hit in the chest and knee.

Monday's shooting and fires were in a neighborhood of seasonal and year-round homes. The area is popular with recreational boaters but is normally quiet this time of year.

"We have very few calls for service in that location," Pickering said. "Webster is a tremendous community. We are a safe community, and to have a tragedy befall us like this is just horrendous."

O'Flynn lamented the violence, which comes on the heels of other shootings including the massacre of 20 students and six adults at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.

"It's sad to see that that this is becoming more commonplace in communities across the nation," O'Flynn said.

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Associated Press writers Chris Carola, George Walsh and Mary Esch in Albany, New York, contributed to this report.

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