Webster, N.Y. – It was first of the many goodbyes to come.
On Christmas Day, the body of 19-year-old Tomasz Kaczowka arrived in Webster. On the way to the funeral home, the hearse was escorted past the West Webster Fire Department on Gravel Road.
Dozens of firefighters from all over Monroe County stood side-by-side along the road and saluted Kaczowka as the hearse went by.
“His final action was leaving this fire station,” says West Webster Fire Department’s public information officer, Al Sienkiewicz. “This was his home. He was always here. It’s only natural that after his body was released that he be brought back to where it started.”
On Christmas Eve, Kaczowka and 43-year-old Webster Police Lieutenant Mike Chiapperini were both shot and killed while responding to a house fire on Lake Road. Both men were West Webster volunteer firefighters and were good friends despite their 24-year age difference and different personalities.
“Tomasz was quiet,” Sienkiewicz recalled. “He did his job pretty much unnoticed. He didn’t look for thanks or anything. He did what needed to be done.”
Sienkiewicz says Chiapperini was an extrovert.
“Chip was… his personality was as such that he would make you laugh,” Sienkiewicz said choking back tears. “In the worst of situations, he would find something that he would laugh about and he did it naturally. That’s just who he was.”
By Tuesday, funeral arrangements had been organized for both men. Public calling hours for both Chiapperini and Kaczowka will be held at Webster Schroeder High School on Friday, December 28 from 6 to 9 p.m. and on Saturday, December 29 from noon to 3 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m.
A funeral for Lt. Mike Chiapperini will be held at noon at Webster Schroeder High School on Sunday, December 30.
A funeral for Tomasz Kaczowka will be held at 10 a.m. on Monday, December 31 at St. Stanislaus Church.
Amidst the pain and grief, the West Webster firefighters went back to work a day after the shooting – 6 p.m. on Christmas Day. For 36 hours, several fire departments from Monroe County had volunteered to cover the department’s shifts to give the firefighters time to grieve, however, the West Webster chief felt it was time to come back to work.
“We want [the firefighters] to return to a point of normalcy as quickly as possible,” Sienkiewicz explained. “Obviously it’s not going to be quick. The first few runs they go out on, they may be looking over their shoulders, but at some point in time, this organization needs to get back to what we do.”
Sienkiewicz says the department has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from their brother firefighters all over the world and also from the local community.
On Tuesday, Brockport Assistant Chief Mike LaDue was there as his firefighters packed up and left the West Webster Fire Station on Gravel Road. He says if West Webster had requested it, the Brockport Fire Department would have been there longer.
“We’re all family,” he said. “Brothers and sisters. It’s going to be a long time before this department gets over this and if they need us to help out, we’ll be there.”