By Colleen M. Farrell
The Gates-Chili Post
WEBSTER, N.Y. — Injured but alive, John Ritter spent Christmas Eve with his wife and children, wondering why he survived an ambush while others did not.
"I have many different emotions ranging from guilt to happiness because I was home," the Greece Police officer said.
Two other emergency responders were not as lucky. West Webster Fire Department members Michael Chiapperini, 43, also a lieutenant with the Webster Police Department, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19, were shot and killed by William Spengler Jr. on Christmas Eve. in Webster as they responded to a fire that authorities believe Spengler set.
The death toll has risen to three as officials revealed last week that they had found a body inside the Spengler home, believed to be that of Cheryl Spengler, William Spengler Jr.'s sister.
West Webster fire-fighters Joseph Hofstetter and Ted Scardino, who were also shot, have been recovering at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. The firefighters released a statement last Wednesday thanking the community for its support.
"We deeply appreciate your compassion and support as we focus on recovering from our physical wounds," the statement read. "We are humbled and a bit overwhelmed by the outpouring of well wishes for us and our families."
Ritter, who suffered injuries to his arm and chest from glass fragments, was treated and released after the incident. He was on his way to work a little after dawn on Christmas Eve when he saw emergency vehicles parked on Lake Road in Webster. The former Ontario County sheriff's deputy said he heard several popping noises while he was driving near the scene. Then he noticed a hole in his windshield. He assumed it was shrapnel from the fire.
"At no point did I see firemen. At no point did I see anyone actively shooting," he said. "I come around the corner seconds after the fire department gets there." The popping continued.
"At that point I determined someone is shooting, so I backed up to try to get cover and try not to take anymore rounds obviously, because someone is actively shooting at someone or something," he said. "Then I hear multiple rounds going offagain."
Ritter, a 19-veteran of the Greece Police force, had no police radio, no weapon, no way of protecting himself. He backed up to Bay Road and encountered some firefighters.
"I told them, 'Somebody's shooting. Don't go down there,'" he said.
The scene became chaotic, Ritter said, as law enforcement arrived and tried to figure out what happened.
"It's a very difficult emotional experience for me because I'm trained to help people and at that point, I can't because I don't have anything. And however I reacted, and whatever I did, if I was armed or if I had a radio or if I had gotten out (of my car), I may not be here today," he said.
Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering called him a hero, a description Ritter said should only be bestowed upon the four firefighters.
"My heart goes out to those people and their families because no one ever expects that," he said. "This is the most tragic thing that could ever happen to anybody."
According to Webster Police, Spengler, who spent 17 years in prison for killing his grandmother in 1980, set fire to his Webster home, then lay in wait with several weapons for firefighters to show up. His note indicated no motive, according to police.
Investigators believe that Spengler wrote a note in which he pledged to "do what I like doing best, killing people." Then he started a fire that eventually destroyed a car and the home he shared with his 67-yearold sister, Cheryl. The inferno eventually destroyed six other homes. Then he took a revolver, a shotgun and a semiautomatic rifle and took up a position outside, investigators say. "He was equipped to go to war, kill innocent people," Pickering said. He called the attack a "clear ambush on first responders."
Spengler, 62, traded rifle fire with a Webster police officer who had accompanied the firefighters and then killed himself with a gunshot to the head.
Ritter said he doesn't know why he lived and others did not.
"I can't answer questions when it comes to that because I don't know why I'm still here, other than there was some type of divine intervention that kept that round from penetrating through my car and hitting something else," he said.
Includes contributions from The Associated Press.
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