WEBSTER – Fellow police and firefighters choked back sobs Sunday afternoon as they described Lt. Michael Chiapperini as a friend, mentor and family man at a funeral attended by first responders from across New York.
Chiapperini, 43, and fellow firefighter Tomasz Kaczowka, 19, were slain by gunman William Spengler in a fiery Christmas Eve ambush in a neighborhood on the shore of Lake Ontario. Two other firefighters remain hospitalized with bullet wounds.
An estimated 5,000 first responders from across the state were in town for the weekend to attend calling hours for both men on Saturday at Webster Schroeder High School. More than 200 volunteer firefighters from Erie County made the journey to honor their fallen comrades.
“It was a very sad affair, but an incredible statement to the fire service and its brotherhood,” Mike Burns, a firefighter from the Hamburg Village Fire Department, said Saturday of the wake, held in the Webster Schroeder High School’s gymnasium. “I couldn’t even tell you the thousands of firefighters that were there.”
At Chiapperini’s funeral Sunday afternoon in the high school’s auditorium, Webster Fire District Chief James Deisenroth called him a “true hero” and mentor who “gave me the courage and confidence to handle anything.”
As head of the local Explorer’s program, Chiapperini helped many members of the fire department get their start.
Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering, his voice cracking with emotion, ended his tribute with “Car 941, you are 10-7,” the police code for out of service. “Your work is done. Rest in peace, my friend.”
Webster Police Officer Anthony Galante, former West Webster fire chief, gave a glimpse of Chiapperini’s sense of humor and mischievousness. He told how he and Chiapperini hummed the “Mission: Impossible” theme as they snuck an air conditioner to their room at a sweltering state fire training center and “giggled like schoolgirls” as they removed a screen and duct-taped every air leak. He said Chiapperini was almost arrested by state police for it, but talked them into letting the air conditioner stay for the duration of the two-week training session.
Bagpipers and drummers played “Amazing Grace” in a funeral procession after the service.
Kaczowka’s funeral is this morning at St. Stanislaus Church in Rochester.
– News Staff Reporter Maki Becker contributed to this report.