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Friday, Oct 24, 2014
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Henderson: Yankees give ambushed firefighter reason to smile

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Around 5:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve, Joseph Hofstetter was the first of several volunteers from the West Webster Fire Department near Rochester, N.Y., to answer what seemed to be a routine call. A car was ablaze.

He started banging on the front door of the home near where the car was parked, but no one answered. He was about to kick in the door when the firetruck had arrived, so he headed toward it.

“I didn’t see any of the guys; they had gone around to the other side of the truck,” he said. “So I went around there and saw them, and then I turned. That’s when I got hit.”

He was shot in the pelvis from a Bushmaster .223-caliber semi-automatic rifle, similar to the weapon used in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. William Spengler, 62, who spent 17 years in prison for killing his grandmother with a hammer, left a typewritten note saying he planned “to do what I like doing best: killing people.”

Before the shooting was done, two responders were dead and Hofstetter and one other volunteer were seriously injured.

Bleeding, Hofstetter crawled back to the firetruck and got on the radio to warn authorities that the seemingly minor call was, instead, an ambush. Colleagues Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka lay dead in the street, and tapes reveal Hofstetter told a dispatcher, “I am in the danger zone right now. I need EMS or I’m going to be joining them.”

On a cloudy Wednesday afternoon at Steinbrenner Field not quite three months after the rampage, Hofstetter walked in front of the pitcher’s mound to throw out the first ball before the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox exhibition game. One of his favorite players, Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner, got behind the plate to receive the pitch.

His story was told over the public address system, and the crowd rose to its feet and cheered. Players in both dugouts stood and applauded as well.

“Why is this occurring? A lot of this is happening more and more than ever before,” Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said.

“It just seems like on a monthly basis there is a new circumstance like this, and you’re wondering why. Why is this going on? Why does it have to happen? There is no place in society for this. It can be a really cruel world sometimes, and he has experienced that as much as anybody. We’re all thankful he’s here and has a chance to enjoy life.”

Hofstetter always wanted to be a fireman. Well, either that or third baseman for the Yankees.

“I wasn’t a very good player, so that dream died pretty quickly,” he said.

The fireman’s dream did not. You might say he was born for the job.

“I love being able to help people. I love the camaraderie, the brotherhood that firefighters have for one another,” he said.

The morning of the shooting was chaotic. Rescue personnel had to stay back because the shooter had set up a sniper’s nest and fired on anyone who approached. Hofstetter was trying not to go into shock.

“I knew I had to get out of there myself,” he said.

He crawled to the driver’s side step of the firetruck and stood “on my good leg” with the door open.

“I held the wheel with one hand, and I ducked down and rammed the gas,” he said.

He went about 40 yards before crashing into a concrete wall as bullets sprayed the truck. It took another 20 minutes for him to crawl to his Chevy Blazer, out of the line of fire. Only then was he able to get medical help.

“I wasn’t sure how bad I was torn up inside. I’ve been to shootings before where a guy talks to you and a couple of hours later he’s dead. I didn’t know. I didn’t want to die. I was determined not to,” he said.

The bullet missed vital organs, but he suffered nerve damage to his left leg and basic things like walking or standing can be a challenge. That’s especially frustrating because Hofstetter led an active lifestyle: running, hiking, basically anything outdoors.

“I want my own life back,” he said.

Perhaps no one will ever know why a crazed man set a trap like this. The shooter set his own house ablaze, and the charred body of his sister, who he said he hated, was later found inside. The note he left is the only clue. He just wanted to kill people.

But on the first day of spring, Hofstetter sat by the cage during batting practice and watched in awe as player after player came by to shake his hand and say hello. He was bathed in the warmth and appreciation of the crowd. For a little while, at least, the pain seemed far away.

He knows it’s still a long road back, but that’s just another challenge to be met. Don’t bet against him.

“If I make it back all the way, we win,” he said. “We all win. And I want to win.”

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