WEBSTER – Two firefighters who survived a Christmas Eve shooting ambush that left two colleagues dead said Wednesday their jobs will never be the same.
“Now you’re going to be looking over your shoulder,” Theodore Scardino said as he and Joseph Hofstetter spoke publicly for the first time since the attack.
The two sat before a throng of reporters and cameras at the West Webster Fire Department after attending physical therapy earlier Wednesday.
Scardino was shot in the shoulder and Hofstetter in the pelvis the morning of Dec. 24, when convicted felon William Spengler Jr. opened fire as they arrived to battle a car and house fire in Webster, just east of Rochester.
Two other firefighters, Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka, were killed.
“You go to a car fire in the middle of the night; you don’t expect what happened is what’s going to happen,” Hofstetter said. “I figured I’d be back in an hour.”
Even the sound of gunshots didn’t register at first. Both firefighters thought they were hearing tires or shocks pop and burn in the blaze that police say Spengler set at the lakeside house he shared with his sister, Cheryl Spengler. Remains believed to be hers were found at the scene.
Spengler, who served 17 years in prison for killing his grandmother with a hammer, committed suicide after police arrived.
After being hit, Scardino said, he fell to the ground and took cover under a fire truck. A wounded Hofstetter, unaware Scardino was there, moved the truck about 10 minutes later while trying to get out of harm’s way.
“I took a deep breath. I said, ‘OK, am I going to be able to breathe? Am I going to pass out? All right, I’m going to sit here and play dead for five minutes, and then it’s going to be over. The place will be swarming with police,’” Scardino recalled.
Instead, he lay bleeding on the cold ground for more than an hour as law enforcement officials battled the gunman and the fire grew to an inferno.
The shot itself didn’t immediately hurt, he said, but the heat eventually caused second-degree burns to his head and feet.
“It was a nightmare, wondering what was going to be next,” he said. He said he didn’t know whether there was one gunman or five.
Hofstetter, too, was in survival mode. Bleeding and hurt, he used his good leg to stand on the outer platform of the truck and reached for the steering wheel with one hand and the gas with the other. The plan was to try to drive away while using the truck for cover, but it soon crashed.
“I was in pain,” he said, “but with the adrenaline, the way the human body gets in survival mode, it wasn’t a factor at the time.”
Both expressed gratitude for the outpouring of prayers and support.
“Obviously this was an evil act, but there’s a lot of good in this community and the world,” Hofstetter said.
Each undergoes hours of physical therapy sessions every week.
“It’s going to be a long road back, Hofstetter said.
The firefighters were reluctant to talk about their emotional well-being and recovery, said fire department spokesman Al Sienkiewicz, who intervened to deflect questions.
“This event is still raw in the minds of the 125 members here and their families,” Sienkiewicz said. “We are not over this by a long shot.”