Thousands Attend Funeral of Michael Chiapperini

7:37 PM, Dec 31, 2012   |    comments
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Video: WWFD Chief Speaks at Lt. Mike Chiapperini Funeral

Video: Webster Police Chief Pickering Speaks at Chiapperini Funeral

  • Photo Courtesy: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
  • Photo Courtesy: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

By Patti Singer and Brian Sharp
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

WEBSTER, N.Y. - The tears came before the words.

As Webster police Sgt. Dennis Kohlmeier wept before the packed Webster Schroeder auditorium at Lt. Michael Chiapperini's funeral service on Sunday, one brother in uniform after another rose to join him, until a crowd formed at the podium.

That show of unity and brotherhood was evident throughout the day - in the thousands of emergency responders who stood in the frigid afternoon wind as Chiapperini's flag-draped coffin passed; in the dozens of firetrucks, police vehicles and ambulances from across the region that joined the funeral procession to West Webster Cemetery; in the citizens who lined the route holding American flags.

Kohlmeier composed himself and as others did before and after him, he spoke of Chiapperini as a friend and mentor - loving, laughing, as quick to offer a helpful word as a helping hand.

A police officer. A firefighter. A husband, father, son, brother.

"We mourn. We hurt. We cry. But we do not break," Chiapperini's brother-in-law, Dane Erich, said during the funeral service at the high school. "Mindless evil is not going to triumph over good."

Chiapperini, 43, and Tomasz Kac­zowka, 19, were fatally shot on Christmas Eve while responding to a fire on Lake Road in Webster. Kaczowka's funeral is scheduled for Monday.

The blue line

Approximately 4,000 firefighters, police, and emergency medical services providers came to pay their respects to Chiapperini from departments throughout New York state, from Maine to California and several communities in the Canadian province of Ontario.

"As we honor our fallen brothers, we stand together in the blue line," Monroe County Sheriff Commander Dave Phelps said before the assembly formed.

They began to gather more than two hours before the service, many taking school bus shuttles from Webster Thomas High School to Schroeder. They assembled in the school then walked two by two into the parking lot, filling three sections. The only sound was the crunch of rock salt under their boots.

Some wore hats, others had earmuffs. Some wore dress white gloves, others had heavier gloves but a few just clenched bare hands.

They stood silently, shoulder to shoulder and several deep, then snapped to a salute when West Webster Truck 122 pulled up, draped with purple and black bunting and bearing the casket of Chiapperini. A contingent lowered it to a bier, and several of Chiapperini's colleagues passed between two lines of West Webster firefighters to escort him into the school as nearly 100 bagpipes and drums played.

The formation broke row by row as each responder went single file into the school, proceeding to the auditorium to pass by the casket, hats held over their hearts. Family and members of the West Webster Fire Department and Webster Police Department were the only mourners who remained in the auditorium, where the service took place. Others watched a broadcast of the service in the cafeteria and gymnasium.

West Webster Fire Chief James Deisenroth said Chiapperini joined the department at age 18 and quickly became one of its most active members. "His was a leadership unlike any I've ever experienced," Deisenroth said. "... His goal was to teach us to always do the right thing."

He then addressed Chiapperini, saying that - with Kac­zowka - "you will never be alone."

Former Fire Chief and Webster Police Officer Anthony Galante told a story about the time he and Chiapperini were caught trying to sneak an air conditioner into a dormitory room at the fire academy. Remember him in "happy terms," Erich had told the mourners.

After the service, Chiapperini's casket was escorted back to Truck 122. A bugler blew Taps and Chiapperini received a 21-gun salute. Firehouse chaplain Hugh Knight called the detail to the final alarm for Chiapperini, also a former West Webster chief.

He spoke of the tradition of a ringing bell that brings a firefighter to duty and signals the end of the call. Then the bell was rung in three bursts, with three rings each time.

Brad Davies, 22, of Warsaw, Wyoming County, struggled to find words to describe the ceremony. He said that walking past he casket was breathtaking.

Davies, who has been a volunteer firefighter only since May, spent the time during the service back in formation.

"That's OK," he said. "For the sacrifice he's given to us, I can stand outside for a few hours and pay respects."

Dave DeGraff, the chief of Wallkill volunteer company in Ulster County, said he would most remember the row after row of firefighters and law enforcement.

Brent Smith, 27, a fireman in Orange County, Calif., was part of the honor guard.

"We felt it was important to show that their brothers on the West Coast are thinking of you," he said. "We wanted to show support."

Sgt. Jeff Alderdice of the Toronto Police Service called the funeral stirring and was struck by the grace and strength of Chiapperini's widow, Kimberly.

"I can't believe how brave the officer's wife is. For her to be so strong in front of all of us."

Broken hearts

In her eulogy, Kimberly Chiapperini thanked the community, as well as police, firefighters and Explorers, who drew applause when she asked them to stand. She recounted her husband's humor and playfulness, bringing the somber crowd to laughter, and spoke of her loss, bringing them to tears.

"Even though I'm surrounded by wonderful people, it's incredibly lonely," she said. "My heart is broken."

Two weeks ago, she happened across a YouTube video of a firefighter's funeral and Chiapperini told her that if he happened to die in the line of duty, not to have the bagpipers play Amazing Grace at his funeral because it was too cliche.

They laughed about it then. But when the funeral director came, she told him to make sure the bagpipers played that hymn. If the cold made them out of tune, all the better. "Mike will be laughing," she said.

As the family and mourners gathered at the graveside, residents - including Kohlmeier's sister-in-law, Chiapperini's former classmate and others dispersed from driveways where they had gathered as the procession passed. Small flags lined snowbanks and the cemetery road. Down the street, a hand-painted sign read: "WWFD God Bless, We ? You."

And the sound of bagpipes playing Amazing Grace drifted out over Ridge Road.

"Car 9-4-1, you are 10-7," Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering had said during the funeral service, his voice breaking as he wrapped up his remarks. "Your work is done here.

"Rest in peace, my friend."

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