“Tonight will help,” Stacy Cunningham said quietly, referring to a departmental debriefing, with counselors, at the West Webster firehouse on Gravel Road last week.
Cunningham is a West Webster firefighter. He also grew up with Michael “Chip” Chiapperini, one of two West Webster firefighters, along with 19-year-old Tomasz Kaczowka, who was killed by a lone gunman as they responded to a fire call at 191 Lake Road before dawn on Christmas Eve.
“I guess I knew Chip about the longest,” Cunningham said. “We were in the same fourth-grade class (in Webster) and discovered we lived near each other. We used to run back and forth (to each other’s houses).”
Two other West Webster firefighters, Joseph Hofstetter and Theodore “Ted” Scardino, were also seriously injured by the gunman as they responded to the same fire, and were hospitalized for nearly two weeks afterward. They returned to their Webster homes to recuperate this past Saturday, Jan. 4.
While the tragic events of Dec. 24 were felt throughout Webster, Monroe County and, literally, the world, they remain very real at the West Webster Fire Department.
The firehouse at 1051 Gravel Road was still filled with the heavy scent of flowers late last week. An impromptu memorial that sprang up outside the firehouse after the tragedy was moved inside the truck bay when a tent firefighters placed over it collapsed with the heavy snowfall.
The flowers, candles, letters, poems, pictures, stuffed animals — even two chocolate chip cookies for “Chip” — and more surround Kaczowka’s car, which remains where he parked it the night of Dec. 23, when he decided to stay overnight at the firehouse.
Driving what might be called an emergency “fly” car, Kaczowka followed Chiapperini and Scardino, in the department’s Pumper 125, out of the station when the fire call on Lake Road came in just before 6 a.m. Hofstetter met them in his own car at the scene.
Another half-dozen volunteers were behind them, but it was the quick action of Hofstetter, who was shot but still able to get to a radio; off-duty Greece Police Officer John Ritter, who just happened by on his way to work; and Webster police officers that prevented further tragedy, said West Webster’s public information officer, Al Sienkiewicz.
West Webster is an all-volunteer department, except for some career (paid) EMS (ambulance) personnel, Sienkiewicz explained, adding that while some volunteers may respond from their homes, others choose to “bunk-in,” like Kaczowka did, when their volunteer team is on duty.
Strength in numbers
Immediately after the tragedy, the about 125-member department used what is called the incident command system, designed to break a project into components and a manageable span of control, to prepare for two funerals, Sienkiewicz said. One member was assigned to organize each of several areas, from lodging and food to communications and honor guard.
Page 2 of 2 - Members of the New York State Police, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, Webster and Rochester police stepped in to help.
The leadership actually got together on Christmas Day, Sienkiewicz said, to begin setting up a system for Chiapperini’s funeral, held Dec. 30 at Webster Schroeder High School, and Kaczowka’s, held the following day, at St. Stanislaus Church in Rochester. Calling hours for both firefighters were held Friday and Saturday, Dec. 28 and 29, also at Schroeder.
Thousands came out — from Orange County, Cal., Texas, Canada and well beyond.
Flowers and condolences poured in from across the U.S., and elsewhere.
“The beauty of it was that there was so much work to do, it kept everyone busy,” Sienkiewicz said late last week. “Now reality has set in; the department isn’t as busy as it was and we’re thinking more.”
Coping with loss
Dozens of members were expected to attend last Thursday night’s critical incident stress debriefing (to which Cunningham referred).
“The last thing we want is to minimize the long-term affects on members,” Sienkiewicz said, explaining that while individual counseling was available to firefighters from the beginning and there has been a lot of peer on peer support, the Jan. 3 debriefing was the first department-wide event.
“We tend to be a younger department,” Sienkiewicz added, noting, “We have a hard enough time exposing them (younger firefighters) to fatalities (at fires) ... then to see their own members killed.” Well, it’s new territory.
“There’s a lot we don’t know,” about how members will cope with the grief, Sienkiewicz admitted.
They do know they will go on, keep responding to calls and serving their community.
At the same time, donations for the firefighters and their families continue to pour in, and a member of the department has been placed in charge. No decisions have been made, as yet, on how to disperse those donations.
Firefighters have no doubt that gunman William Spengler, of 191 Lake Road, set a trap, Sienkiewicz said, “and we responded into it.” Spengler took his own life that same morning.
He expects there will be firefighters “looking over their shoulders” following the tragedies, he added, “but the reality is we (firefighters) have to be able to operate in an open area with a lot of room ... There’s not a whole lot a fire department can change in the way it responds.”
Yet, from this point on, there may be concern when a call comes in for a house fire in the middle of the night, he admitted, “and that’s understandable ... But, we have to realize, too, that this was one horrific, isolated event.”