WEBSTER, N.Y. -- An ex-con set a car and a house ablaze in his lakeside neighborhood to lure firefighters, then opened fire on them, killing two, engaging in a shootout with police and committing suicide while several houses burned. Authorities used an armored vehicle to evacuate the area.
The gunman fired at the four firefighters when they arrived shortly after 5:30 a.m. at the blaze in Webster, a suburb of Rochester on Lake Ontario, town Police Chief Gerald Pickering said. The first police officer who arrived chased the suspect and exchanged gunfire, authorities said.
"It does appear it was a trap'' for the first responders to the fire, Pickering said at a midday news conference. His motive wasn't clear.
The gunman, William Spengler, had served more than 17 years in prison for beating his 92-year-old grandmother to death in 1980 at the house next to where Monday's attack happened, Pickering said at a briefing later in the afternoon. Spengler, 62, was paroled in 1998 and had led a quiet life since, authorities said. Convicted felons are not allowed to possess weapons.
Police say lay in wait for the firefighters' arrival, then opened fire from outdoors, probably with a rifle and from atop an earthen berm.
Two firefighters, one of whom was also a town police lieutenant, died at the scene, and two others were hospitalized. A fifth man who was passing by was also injured. The police officer who exchanged gunfire with Spengler "in all likelihood saved many lives,'' Pickering said.
Seven houses were destroyed in the blaze, Pickering said, and police have not been able to get inside the houses to determine if there are any more victims. They said Spengler's 67-year-old sister Cheryl Spengler was unaccounted for. He lived in the house with his sister and mother, Arline, who died in October.
The West Webster Fire District learned of the fire early Monday after a report of a car and house on fire on Lake Road, on a narrow peninsula where Irondequoit Bay meets Lake Ontario, Monroe County Sheriff Patrick O'Flynn said.
The fire appeared from a distance as a pulsating ball of flame glowing against the early morning sky, flames licking into treetops and reflecting on the water, with huge bursts of smoke billowing away in a brisk wind.
Two of the firefighters arrived on a fire engine and two in their own vehicles, Pickering said. After Spengler fired, one of the wounded men managed to flee, but the other three couldn't because of flying gunfire.
A police armored vehicle was used to recover two of the men, and eventually it evacuated 33 people from nearby homes, the police chief said. The gunfire initially kept firefighters from battling the blazes.
"These people get up in the middle of the night to go put out fires; they don't expect to be shot and killed,'' Pickering said.