They did not know the two firefighters from West Webster who were ambushed by a crazed gunman bent on death and destruction on the morning of Christmas Eve.
But that was not the point for more than 200 volunteer firefighters from Erie County who made the solemn journey to Rochester on Saturday to pay their respects and say goodbye to their fallen brothers.
“It was a very sad affair, but an incredible statement to the fire service and its brotherhood,” said Mike Burns, a firefighter from the Hamburg Village Fire Department. “I couldn’t even tell you the thousands of firefighters that were there.”
As they stepped off the buses, the men and women from Erie County waited 2½ to 3½ hours in a line that snaked through the halls of Webster Schroeder High School before entering the gymnasium where the wake was held.
Wearing their dress blues and their shields covered with a black band of mourning, the local firefighters entered the high school gym as a unit and stood before the two closed caskets draped in American flags. The firefighters bowed their heads in silence, then gave a final salute.
“It was one of the saddest and proudest moments of my career to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of our Erie County firefighters,” said Tiger Schmittendorf, deputy fire coordinator for Erie County Department of Emergency Services.
The firefighters boarded buses Saturday morning at the Erie County Fire Academy in Cheektowaga, where they practiced and drilled to be ready for every possible scenario a firefighter could encounter in an emergency. Now, they were departing for the wake of fellow rescuers who died under unimaginable circumstances.
Michael Chiapperini, 43, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19, with the West Webster Volunteer Fire Department, were killed as they arrived to fight a fire set by the killer, William Spengler, 62, who had served 17 years in prison for bludgeoning his grandmother to death with a hammer.
Two other firefighters were wounded but survived.
Authorities say Spengler also killed his sister, whose remains were believed to have been found in the charred ruins of Spengler’s home.
Spengler turned his gun on himself as seven homes around him burned down.
The deaths of the two firefighters have been especially painful to the men and women who serve in the region’s volunteer fire departments.
Firefighters are trained on what to do if a floor collapses in a fire and on signs to look out for before an explosion.
They do it willingly, and for many, as volunteers because they love being able to help someone in trouble.
“We’re supposed to be the good guys,” said Wales Center Fire Chief Bob Gajewski. “We’re coming because someone called for help.”
For Blair Buczowski, one of four firefighters from the Hamburg Village Fire Department who carpooled to the academy, the killings were “an event that never should have happened.”
“It hits so close,” said Mary Eustace, another Hamburg Village firefighter. “It could have happened here.”
That’s what was so frightening – and sad – to the Erie County firefighters and the thousands more from around the state and across the nation who turned up for the wake.
Burns, also of Hamburg Village, pointed out that Chiapperini was also a police lieutenant and Kaczowski had been a 911 dispatcher.
That’s exactly the same type of people who serve in volunteer fire departments like his own, Burns said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s West Webster or Westchester or West Buffalo,” Burns said. “It’s all the same.
Ray Ott, a retired firefighter from the Cleveland Hill Fire Department, said he had been to “countless” funerals of firefighters over his 40 years.
But he never heard of anything so horrifying happening to a firefighter.
A friend of his who was a Buffalo firefighter was attacked at the scene of a fire.
“He got beat up with a two-by-four,” he said.
But that firefighter survived.
James Herr, a chaplain for Rescue Hose Company 1 in Cheektowaga, was at a loss for words to explain how something like this could happen.
“People do crazy things out there,” he said.
Before boarding the buses, which were underwritten by the 100 Club of Buffalo, the firefighters bowed their heads in a moment of silence.
Schmittendorf reminded the firefighters gathered why they were going. “This is nothing more than what they would do for us,” he said.
In fact, Burns said, he didn’t hear one comment about having to wait 2½ to 3½ hours in line to pay their respects.
Nobody cared, Burns said.
“But as we got back on the bus,” Burns said, “I heard many people comment: ‘That was certainly worth the wait.’ ”
News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report email: email@example.com