Tonawanda News

October 9, 2013

Town incident eerily similar to Webster tragedy

Fire call brings back memories of NY tragedy

By Amy Wallace
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — When the 911 call came in of a house fire and possible shots fired, responding fire crews could not help but think back to another tragedy last year that claimed the lives of two of their firefighter brothers.

Crews from Brighton, Sheridan-Park and Ellwood fire departments responded to the incident at 163 Fries Road in the Town of Tonawanda Monday where a man allegedly set fire to his house after reports of gunfire were heard.

When the fire crews arrived on scene, Town of Tonawanda Police Chief Anthony J. Palombo gave the order for them to stand down because of the report of shots fired and the possibility the man was still inside with a weapon, according to Sheridan-Park Chief James Chatham.

Police have identified the home’s owner, Joseph Hollywood, 60, as the person who fired the shots. According to police, Hollywood had threatened a woman at the house with a gun. The unidentified woman called 911 and fled the home.

Hollywood, 60, died in his basement from smoke inhalation, alongside his long gun and oxygen tank, an autopsy revealed Tuesday. The incident led to a tense standoff in the normally quiet residential area. It prompted nearby schools to go on lockdown.

As it turns out, the precautions taken were prudent.

The findings have provided vindication for police officers and first responders, who didn’t approach the burning Fries Road home in fear that Hollywood was inside, armed and ready to attack anyone who approached him. 

“Investigators believe he was positioned where he was so that he could engage any police that came in looking for him,” a statement from police Lt. Nick Bado reads. 

Chatham was not on-site Monday during the incident but said he was glad that the police chief’s first concern was his firefighters.

“The chief’s first concern was protecting my members and all the firefighters,” Chatham said.

Chatham said he felt relieved that his men were taken care of when he wasn’t there himself.

“Before last Christmas Eve, no one ever expected anything like this,” Chatham said, referring to the tragedy in Webster, N.Y. on Christmas Eve 2012.

On Dec. 24, 2012, four firefighters were shot, two of them fatally, while responding to a fire in Webster, a suburb of Rochester.

The West Webster Fire Department was called for the report of a structure fire just after 5:35 a.m. The firefighters were ambushed when they arrived to fight the fire by a man with a gun who set the fire and laid in wait to shoot at them.

Lt. Mike Chiapperini, a Webster Police Department lieutenant, who was off-duty and responding as a volunteer firefighter, was killed along with Tomasz Kaczowka, another volunteer firefighter and a 911 dispatcher. Two firefighters, Theodore Scardino and Joseph Hofstetter, were injured in the shooting.

Webster Police identified the shooter as 62-year-old William Spengler, who was found dead near the scene from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Spengler, like Hollywood, had run-ins with police prior to the incident. Spengler was arrested in 1980 for beating and killing his grandmother. 

Police and neighbors said that there had been numerous domestic disturbances over the years involving Hollywood at the Fries Road home.

“In a domestic situation, the fire (departments) wait for the police to give the all clear before fire crews go in,” Chatham said. 

The Brighton Fire Department was the lead fire company for the incident Monday.

Brighton Fire Chief Chris Tracey said that they received the order to stand down while on route to the scene. 

As the home collapsed, firefighters used a ladder truck behind the home to get water on the structure from a safe distance. 

“The all clear was given after about a half hour to 45 minutes of our arrival,” Tracey said. “Then we went defensive with the fire, preventing it from spreading to other homes.”

The body wasn’t found until between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., after the home was completely destroyed. 

Tracey said that they were told to stay out of visible sight while working the fire and that police and SWAT officers with guns drawn surrounded them for protection.

“I’ve never responded to this kind of thing,” Tracey said. “It was kind of bizarre. Tonawanda is a small community, you never think this could happen here. It brought back memories of Webster.”

According to Tracey, there will be a standard review of the incident and response with the police, fire departments and town supervisor in the coming days.

Tracey said the situation went well as there were no casualties to civilians or emergency crews.

Others agreed.

“Dispatchers did an unbelievable job,” Chatham said. “There was a unified command post and a game plan that worked.”

Palumbo, the police chief, said the decision to let the home burn was ultimately one to ensure the safety of first responders.

“It was somewhat difficult, because we knew there would be significant damage to the house and possibly fire damage to some other nearby homes,” Palumbo said. “I knew we had some space, but in the end, we have to protect life and limb.”