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N.Y. Firefighters Ambushed At Blaze


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

In upstate New York yesterday, a gunman ambushed firefighters as they were responding to a house fire in the suburban town of Webster. Sixty-two-year-old William Spengler killed two firefighters and injured two others before he took his own life. Police believe that Spengler set the fire to lure the firefighters to the scene. NPR's Joel Rose has been covering the story and he joins us now.

Joel, good morning.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So what more can you tell us about this shooting?

ROSE: Well, as you say, it occurred in the early morning hours of Monday. The police believe that William Spengler set fire to his house on a narrow strip of land close to Lake Ontario. And when firefighters came to the scene to put it out, he opened fire. Here's Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering speaking to reporters.

CHIEF GERALD PICKERING: This is still an active investigation, but I will say at first blush it appears that it was a trap. That there was a car and a house that were engulfed in flame, probably set by Mr. Spangler, who laid in wait with armament and then shot the first responders.

ROSE: Police say that four firefighters were shot. Two were pronounced dead at the scene and two were hospitalized with serious injuries, but they are expected to survive. Authorities say there was a brief exchange of gunfire between police and Mr. Spengler before they believe that Mr. Spengler took his own life.

GREENE: Joel, I mean, any death is tragic, obviously, but, I mean, for a man to lure first responders to a place and then shoot at them. I mean, do we know anything about this guy William Spengler?

ROSE: Well, we know that he has a criminal history. He was a 62-year-old man. He was convicted of manslaughter after killing his own grandmother in 1980. He served more than 17 years in prison for that crime and was released on parole in 1998. But police say he's led a quiet life since then and really had not crossed paths with them, at least until yesterday. And, you know, we really don't know at this point in the investigation what might have set him off or what might've led to Monday's tragic events.

GREENE: OK. So a man with a criminal history had his hands on these weapons. Do we know anything about the weapons involved here?

ROSE: Police have not said very much about the weapon or weapons that were used by Mr. Spengler, although Police Chief Pickering did say that it was likely he used a rifle to shoot at the firefighters because he was able to hit them while they were still in their vehicles. Although, they haven't said, as I say anything else about the weapon or weapons, except that Mr. Spengler, as a convicted felon, could not have legally owned any guns. So, you know, the investigation will continue into where those guns came from and how they came to be in the hands of this man.

GREENE: OK. And, as we said, Webster is a suburban town in upstate New York. I mean, tell us a bit about it, and how is this community dealing with this?

ROSE: It's a middle-class town on the shores of Lake Ontario, just outside of Rochester, New York. You know, and people are struggling to make sense out of this, you know, just as we are, trying to make sense out of something that really just defies reason. You know, here we have some tape of Sue Courtney, who works at a diner about a mile from the scene of the shooting. And she says, you know, it's been the major topic of conversation there.

SUE COURTNEY: It should be Christmas and it isn't. I mean, it's the holiday, but you lose your spirit when something like this happens. It's so devastating and sad.

ROSE: The two firefighters who were killed were volunteering their time and it's just made the depth of sadness even deeper, I think, that this happened at the time that it did. And so far, police haven't been able to say anything about a possible motive for the shooting, though, you know, I don't suppose we should - with a shooting like this, you know, we may never get a satisfying answer about what really happened.

GREENE: Joel, thanks so much.

ROSE: You're welcome.

GREENE: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.

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