The Christmas Eve tragedy in New York that ended in the death of two firefighters and the suicide of the gunman brought back frightful memories for Hermosa Beach Fire Captain Michael Garofano.
A 62-year-old man in New York killed two firefighters by luring them to the site of a burning vehicle early Christmas Eve. The suspect, William Spengler, also lit his Webster home on fire and investigators reported that he laid in wait in a sniper’s position and opened on fire on the first firefighters that arrived at 5:30 a.m.
The New York tragedy reminded Garofano of an incident that happened about three or four years ago in Hermosa Beach.
According to Garofano, emergency units from all three Beach Cities responded to an early morning house fire in Hermosa Beach.
“The fire was blowing out of the windows of the house, so it was obviously well underway, and we tried to make entry,” Garofano said. “It was difficult so we had to force the door open. The smoke had already banked down low, and the first two firefighters went in… and found somebody in the kitchen.”
The firefighters began performing a rescue and dragged the victim out of the building. Next to him was a gun, but rescuers were initially focused on resuscitating the man. Eventually during the rescue efforts, they determined that the man had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
“During the firefight I happened to notice that there were gas cans tipped over in different parts of the apartment,” said Garofano. “I think the guy was thinking that when the fire reaches this point this can will go off and so on.”
They also noticed a suspicious set-up near the doorway.
“At the same time [investigators determined] he was sitting in a chair that was facing the apartment door. The gun was loaded and he had shells in his pocket and more shells on the counter next to him in the kitchen.”
He was also wearing a Nomex fire retardant suit that racecar drivers use.
“Just picture the guy sitting in a chair facing the door with a loaded gun wearing fire resistant clothing. What do you think he’s doing?” Garofano said.
According to Garofano, investigators didn’t have any concrete evidence that he was laying in wait.
“No one will ever know for sure. There wasn’t any note found or anything like that,” said Garofano. “We didn’t know if the guy was distraught, and maybe the smoke had banked down and he couldn’t wait any longer and decided to end it.”
For responders, safety at the scene is the responsibility of everybody and of the utmost importance, Garofano said. “It’s up to that crew to pick up on those general clues. Unfortunately the amount of time we have to mitigate an emergency doesn’t allow us a whole lot of time… but we have to attack it with as much due diligence as possible… these kinds of things happen more than we would like to know.” ER