Early on the morning of Christmas Eve, tragedy visited the small town of Webster, NY, when a madman set fire to a house and a car, luring first responders to the scene and then gunning them down in cold blood. What ensued were hours of confusion and chaos as SWAT teams descended on the small spit of land, a two lane road bordered on one side by Irondequoit Bay and the other by Lake Ontario, chasing the gunman, evacuating neighbors, and retrieving the bodies of shooting victims. Firefighters, unable to enter the area to fight the blaze, could only watch from a distance as seven houses burned to the ground and their commrades lay injured or dead.
West Webster volunteer firefighters Mike Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka were shot to death and John Hofstetter and Theodore Scardino were seriously injured by gunfire as they arrived on the scene. John Ritter, a full time officer with the Greece, NY police, was on his way to work; seeing the fire trucks he followed to offer assistance and was injured by shrapnel when gunfire hit his car.
This happened almost in my backyard, figuratively speaking. Webster, NY is a few miles from my house on the east side of Rochester, NY. My daughter went to Christian high school in Webster for three years; I often walk the beaches to take pictures where this event happened. Webster is part of the larger community of the city of Rochester. It’s a small town just outside of the city, but we’re all neighbors.
When things like this happen in other places, the national news media always reports that “it’s a small town where almost everyone knows someone who was affected.” But you never really understand what that means until it happens in your town.
Yes, I know someone affected. Several someones, in fact.
I know a member of the SWAT team, those brave men who were first on the scene to remove the bodies of the dead and injured, and to evacuate residents while under gunfire. My dear friend worked with Tomasz Kaczowka at the County’s Emergency Services, where the 19-year-old was a 911 dispatcher. (My God, my heart breaks every time I think of him; at 19, he was just a baby.) A firefighter friend works with John Hofstetter; both are firemen for the City of Rochester Fire Dept. My sister knew Mike Chiapperini.
Another friend is a local morning show producer; as I watched the coverage I imagined him juggling the incoming information, sorting through what he knew but was unconfirmed, what was shocking but not suitable for air, what was confusing and would remain that way for hours.
Information was flowing freely on Facebook and among friends and I was getting random updates online and via text throughout the morning. I knew before it was announced in the news that two firefighters were dead; that the gunman had been found on the beach surrounded by weapons; that one of the firefighters was also a full time police officer.
That’s what happens when it’s a small community and people know each other.
I was glued to the TV but I had errands I needed to do. So while I wanted to stay home and watch every second of the coverage, I ran out to the store and listened to the news updates on the radio. Then I sat in my car to listen to the news conference confirming what most of us already knew: two firefighters were dead and two more were injured, and the gunman was dead. I wept and wept as Webster Police Chief Pickering talked about the victims, his voice breaking as he recounted details of the morning’s events.
I needed milk. But I felt guilty shopping. All around me people were laughing and shopping and acting as if this massive tragedy wasn’t unfolding just 10 miles away. I just wanted to be home, to let this digest, to watch our local news anchors tell me minute by minute what was happening, to connect with friends in Facebook. It felt wrong to be planning to celebrate in the hours just after lives were lost in what was surely going to be a national news story. I wanted to scream, “Don’t you know what’s just happened?” But I got my few groceries and went home.
Webster, NY was the lead story on every network; the BBC even covered it. For a moment, Rochester was in the national spotlight. For a horrible crime.
And yet, life went on.
It’s several days later. The national media have moved on to other crises and disasters. (Today, the weather is the lead story.) Now the debates begin, about gun control and, in this case, about mental illness. The gunman, William Spengler, served 18 years in prison for bludgeoning his grandmother to death with a hammer in 1980. He was released in 1998 and was on probation until 2006. His life in the years since, the recent death of his mother, his contentious relationship with his sister (whose remains were found in the ruins of her burned home), and how he got his hands on the guns will be topics of discussion for a very long time. It’s disturbing, it’s frightening, it’s unsettling.
Yes, life goes on. But we are comforted in the knowledge that we go on together.
There is a flood of support for the victims’ families and for those still in the hospital. But it goes beyond money or donations, and even prayers.
A well-known “church,” known for their protests of funerals of law enforcement and military servicemen and women, are planning to descend this weekend on Webster, NY to picket at the funerals of Mike Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka. I’ll refrain from naming the organization because to do so would only satisfy their need for media attention. But strangers from all over the area are banding together to create a “human wall” to shield the families from the hateful protesters threatening to descend on the funerals.
Life goes on, and we are reminded that we are a community, we are neighbors, we are family.
I don’t know why I needed to tell you this story. I don’t really have a point to make and clearly it doesn’t fit the topic of this blog. Unless maybe it’s just to let you know that yes, our community suffered a tragedy and yes, we are all affected in some way.
But also that we are a stronger community, that we are more grateful for each other, and that we mourn our loss and move forward – together.