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Plight of black North Tonawanda firefighter attracts national attention

NORTH TONAWANDA – North Tonawanda police detectives huddled Thursday morning with the city's mayor and fire chief, discussing the investigation of a threatening racist letter sent to the city’s only black firefighter and a fire that heavily damaged the man’s apartment two days later.

No one was injured in the fire Wednesday afternoon at the Oliver Street apartment of volunteer firefighter Kenneth Walker, but the case has attracted national attention because of the potential racial motivation.

“We’re investigating the letter and fire as being linked,” North Tonawanda Police Capt. Thomas Krantz said Tuesday night. “We’re not 100 percent certain that one is related to the other. But we’re investigating it as such.”

Walker’s wife, Amanda, said Tuesday night that fire investigators and FBI agents have not told their family if they’ve determined what caused the fire.

“They told us nothing,” she said.

[RELATED: Arrest made in arson of black North Tonawanda firefighter's home]

But their story has attracted national attention on social media, and thousands of dollars have been raised on the Walkers' behalf by friends and strangers.

Another North Tonawanada firefighter, Shawn Moynihan, who said he did not know Walker, created a gofundme fundraising event on Wednesday afternoon to Benefit the Walkers. In less than 24 hours, $33,130 had been pledged.

"Nobody should ever have to go through what this man and his family are going through. It does not matter what color we are on the outside- we all bleed red," wrote Jill S. Mailler on the gofundme page.

The Gratwick Hose Volunteer Fire Co., where Walker has been a volunteer for two years, will collect donations for Walker's family at its hall, 110 Ward Road, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, the fire department announced. The fire department may also be reached at 692-9675 about the fundraising effort.

News websites across the country, including the New York Daily News, Fusion and others, published stories about the threatening letter and fire at Walker's apartment.

Walker said Wednesday he did not know if he would resign as a firefighter, as was demanded by the anonymous writer of the threatening letter that he said was found Monday in his home mailbox.

“I don’t know, I haven’t thought that far. They are still investigating to determine if it is related. I am going to let the police and firefighters do their jobs, Right now I am going to be there for my family. Right now it is a lot to take in. I can’t say if it is related to the threat I received Monday … or maybe it was something we left on,” he said.

[RELATED: Fire at NT firefighter's apartment was suspicious, investigators believe]

Walker's wife said the family was able to salvage some possessions from their charred apartment.

“We were able to get some clothes. There was a lot of damage. There was soot on everything,” Amanda Walker said.

The Walkers and their two young daughters were not home when the fire was discovered shortly after noon Wednesday at their 1096 Oliver St. apartment. Two other tenants in the four-unit building were sleeping at the time, but escaped uninjured after hearing smoke detectors blaring. Two of the Walker’s cats died in the blaze.

“The (Walker’s) apartment is going to have to be gutted. There’s no saving it,” landlord Charles Internicola said. “The other three apartments probably can have the power turned on Thursday, and be occupied.”

Some North Tonawanda area residents told The Buffalo News on Tuesday that the city has seen racism and racial tensions.

“It’s sad that racism is still taking place here,” said Lila Rankin, a neighbor of the Walkers. She said North Tonawanda has been known for its racism and as a black woman, she said she did not go to the recent Canal Fest because she felt uncomfortable.

She said this recent incident “really hits home.”

At the Corner Store, across the street from the fire, firefighters were coming into to get drinking water on the nearly 90-degree day. Area residents who were stopping in to get their lottery tickets were trying to find out what happened and were shaking their heads in disbelief – one man called it “sickening.”

“It looks like there are haters everywhere,” said owner Bill Lizauckas.

While no officials would use the word arson out loud or say if the fire and letter are related, Lizauckas summed up well what many were saying in the store and on the street: “It sure looks funny, don’t it?” he said.

Mayor Arthur G. Pappas said Tuesday that the city has every available law enforcement resource looking into the situation, from local police detectives, the fire department, the FBI and investigators from the New York State Office of Prevention and Control.

“We want this looked at thoroughly,” Pappas said. “This certainly doesn’t represent this city or represent what this city stands for.”

Walker's uncle, Robert Sands, said the fire and threatening letter are troubling to their family and the larger community.

“I want to know what’s going on. What’s the motivation behind this racial terrorism. That’s what I call it. Racial terrorism. On one day it’s a letter. Then two days later there’s a fire. Is this the start of something we haven’t seen in our area for years?” asked Sands, a Buffalo resident.

He urged authorities to find out who’s behind the letter and the fire.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com and nfischer@buffnews.com

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