On and off throughout Ted Scardino’s 16-year tenure as a senior IT staffer at Nixon Peabody’s Rochester, New York, office, the 49-year-old has served as a volunteer firefighter in the suburbs east of the city.
When a call came in around 5:30 a.m. last Christmas Eve, he jumped out of bed and rushed to put out a car and house fire near the shore of Lake Ontario. What should have been a routine call turned catastrophic when Scardino and three fellow volunteers arrived on the scene. What happened next has led to a new and unlikely role for the soft-spoken technologist: as a public policy advocate on Capitol Hill.
As Scardino stepped out of the fire truck, he recalls, "I heard ‘pop-pop-pop,’ and thought it was tires, shock [absorbers] in the car." It was gunfire. All four men got hit within seconds of each other. The blaze had been set as an ambush.
Scardino took bullets to his back and to his leg. For the next 90 minutes, with a collapsed lung and shattered shoulder and ribs, he lay exposed in the road and played dead while the gunman sprayed the area with bullets and exchanged gunfire with police. The fire leveled a row of houses, burning so near the motionless Scardino that he suffered second-degree burns. When the apocalyptic scene ended with the discovery of the shooter’s suicide, two firefighters were dead, another body was found inside the gunman’s home, and Scardino and a fellow firefighter were finally on their way to a hospital with life-threatening wounds.
Over the next several weeks, as the Rochester area reeled from its own post-Newtown shock, Scardino’s priority was to regain his health. Though relieved that doctors saved his lung, Scardino faces untold months of daily physical therapy for a paralyzed arm and hand, and says he has no idea when he’ll be able to return to his job as Nixon Peabody’s IT infrastructure manager. The father of three is frustrated over losing his old, active lifestyle and says that "the nerve pain is incredible."
During his 12 days in the hospital, Nixon Peabody colleagues cheered him with a "jeans day" fund-raiser for his fire department. And when the West Webster Fire Department’s nonprofit foundation was flooded with cash donations—more than $700,000 at last count—Nixon Peabody stepped in and provided pro bono work to sort out complicated tax-exempt questions about forwarding the donations to the victims’ families. Says Ken Smith, who heads the fire department’s charitable arm: "We offered—almost insisted—to pay for the services," but Nixon Peabody wouldn’t hear of it.
Scardino, a soft-spoken and reserved man, ducked all media attention for more than 10 weeks following the incident. He broke his media silence in early March, when his fire department held a press conference to thank the community for its support and concern. Scardino spoke reticently, but graciously. "I can’t tell you how many times you walk into Wegmans [supermarket] and people pat you on the back, say a kind word, and thank you for your service, and now we’d like to thank the community for everything they’ve done for us," he said at the time.
Scardino never intended to speak publicly about the tragedy or become a vocal proponent of tougher gun control laws, but on March 12 he was the first speaker at a forum in Washington, D.C., organized by the sponsors of the House’s Gun Trafficking Prevention Act of 2013, that called for a stricter federal law on "straw purchases" of firearms.
Why the sudden shift? Partly because the congressional staff of one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland), asked him to speak, but also because of Scardino’s growing anger about the circumstances that led to the attack on him and his friends.
The shooter, William Spengler, 62, had served 17 years for manslaughter after he had killed his grandmother with a hammer. He was released in 1998, and spent the next 14 years seemingly without incident. But in 2010, investigators allege, he recruited a young neighbor with a clean criminal record to buy the two guns found near his body: a Bushmaster assault rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun. "By law, he could not have bought a gun himself," Scardino points out. "By her buying it and giving it to him, that’s what led to this incident. And that’s what we need to stop. We need to stop the bad people from getting guns." The neighbor, Dawn Nguyen, 24, has pleaded not guilty to the federal and state felony charges she now faces.
The House bill Scardino endorsed, along with its Senate companion, are the least controversial versions of the pending gun legislation. Advocates say they would make straw-purchase prosecutions a higher law enforcement priority by clarifying and strengthening a set of laws that now often end up getting charged as mere paperwork violations. They also would at least double potential prison terms, to 20 years or more. Scardino, however, sidesteps the larger gun control debate. "This is not about limiting a law-abiding citizen from getting a gun," he says. During his appearance at the House forum, wearing his somber dress uniform, he stressed the personal over the political, describing what he, his friends, and their families endured on and after December 24.
In the meantime, Scardino has returned to his low-profile recuperation. He doesn’t rule out more advocacy on an issue he takes so personally, but he says he knows what he wants most: "To resume a normal life."