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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In western New York, two firefighters are dead and two more have been hospitalized. All four were shot early this morning while responding to a fire outside Rochester. Local authorities suspect that the gunman killed himself after setting a trap for the first responders. NPR's Joel Rose has our story.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It was just after 5:30 this morning when four volunteer firefighters arrived to the scene of a house fire in a normally quiet town of Webster on the shore of Lake Ontario.

POLICE CHIEF GERALD PICKERING: Yeah. These people get up in the middle of the night to go put out fires. They don't get - expect to be shot and killed.

ROSE: Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering says four fighters were shot this morning: Two were pronounced dead on the scene, two more are seriously injured but expected to survive.

PICKERING: It does appear that it was a trap that was set for first responders.

ROSE: Pickering says police arrived on the scene and briefly exchanged fire with the gunman who apparently took his own life. Later in the day, police identified the gunman as William Spengler, a 62-year-old with a criminal history. Spengler served 17 years in prison for killing his grandmother in 1980. But Pickering says he had led a quiet life since being paroled in 1998.

PICKERING: This is an individual that has a lot of problems to kill his grandmother, you know, some 35 years ago. There were certainly mental health issues involved. You know, we're still trying to drill down at this time to find out what set him off.

ROSE: Authorities think the fire began in the home that Spengler shared with his sister and with his mother who recently passed away. Police Chief Pickering says seven homes in all were destroyed in the fire which raged while police tried to secure the scene. Police have not released any information about the weapon or weapons that William Spengler used in the apparent ambush. But Pickering says Spengler could not have legally owned any guns.

PICKERING: Spengler was a convicted felon. He, you know, he's not allowed to possess weapons. So, you know, did he legally possess those weapons? No.

ROSE: Gerald Pickering fought back tears earlier today when he explained that one of the shooting victims was also a lieutenant with the Webster police force. County Executive Maggie Brooks says the timing of the killings makes them even harder to understand.

MAGGIE BROOKS: I just want everyone to remember it's Christmas Eve. We have families who are in pain and crisis today. And we need to, as a community, keep them in our thoughts and prayers. Very, very difficult day.

ROSE: And it's another difficult day for a country that's still struggling to try to make sense of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, just 10 days ago. Joel Rose, NPR News.

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