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Sherman Says: Epitaphs for recently slain firefighters, as written by strangers

WESTERN NEW YORK — West Webster residents will continue to mourn the loss of two volunteer firefighters, long after the formal period of mourning has come to a close. Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka were killed, on Christmas Eve, when a convicted murderer set his house on fire and ambushed them, as they arrived to do their duty.

On average, 100 American firefighters die in the line of duty, each year. They are almost never shot and killed in cold blood. That’s why the West Webster tragedy is so difficult to accept and impossible to understand.

Chiapperini was the mentor of many firefighters in his department, including the current chief. He was also a West Webster police officer and its public information officer. Chiapperini was warm, compassionate and dedicated to his family and his community.

Kaczowka was an energetic, rising star in the fire service. He was also a 911 dispatcher and the type of recruit every fire department welcomes.

The photos displayed lasat weekend at the wake inside Webster Schroeder High School, showed both men smiling and loving life. The serious business of firefighting was just one means they embraced, to make things better for others on their darkest days. In most cases, they were called to help complete strangers. It was some of those complete strangers who spoke so sincerely, via social media, after their deaths.

While Facebook can be a distraction, it helped unite tens of thousands of individuals who were affected by this event. Visit the “Prayers and Support for Webster Firefighters” Facebook page, for countless comments. They are both enlightening and very inspiring.

Melanie Secore DiBenedetto wrote the following on New Year’s Eve: “My daughter works at Applebee’s, here in Concord, N.C. While working tonight, she was talking with a customer who ordered a Labatt Blue. She said, ‘You don’t happen to be from up north, are you?’ The man answers, ‘Yes, from Syracuse.’ My daughter tells him we are from the Rochester/Webster area. He says, ‘So you know all about the WWFD?’ ‘Oh yes,’ my daughter says. The man says, ‘Do you see the person over there?’ He is pointing to another customer, with our EMT uniform on. He says, ‘Here is $50. Don’t tell him where it came from.’”

From Jonathan Barnett, “I am a member of the Selden FD from Selden, N.Y. on Long Island and just returned home, tonight. Words can’t even describe how humbled I am from the generosity and kindness from the people of Webster. Everywhere we went, people thanked us for coming to their town. Hugs, handshakes and even some tears were exchanged. I wish I could have visited your town on better terms.”

From Lisa Mino, “Every time you leave your families for ours, every time you put yourself in harm’s way for the benefit of another, thank you. It does not go unrecognized.”

From Julie Lowe, “Lt. Chiapperini helped me, a few years ago, at a time when I was very, very scared. He went above and beyond what anyone would expect.”

From Charles Vitale, “What the hell do you tell a mother who has senselessly lost her child? I told her I’m sorry. We hugged. She then did something that shocked me. She tried to make me feel better.”

From Karen Jackman Berry, “Just want you to know the First Church of the Nazarene in Augusta, Kan. prayed for all of them this morning.”

From Barbara Schlegel, “There is nothing more moving than the funeral of a firefighter or member of law enforcement. When I see how many of their brothers and sisters, from companies near and far, come to pay their respects, I am moved to tears.”

From Linda Krumenacker Dysart, “My husband was a NYC fireman in the South Bronx. They would have garbage cans thrown at them from rooftops and wire placed across steps inside buildings to trip them up.”

Finally, from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Rest in peace, Michael and Tomasz.

David Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. He is a past president of the Williamsville Volunteer Fire Department. The author can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.
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