Four days after the home of North Tonawanda’s only black firefighter was burned down in a racially-charged case, hundreds of people from near and far came out to help.
Kenneth Walker’s workplace, the Gratwick Hose Fire Company, hosted a fundraiser Sunday to collect cash and items for him, his wife, Amanda, and their two young children – ages four and six months – after a fire set ablaze their home and belongings and killed two cats.
So far, the fire department has raised more than over $10,000 in cash donations and hundreds of household items that range from shampoo and diapers to couches and a TV.
A GoFundMe page, titled “Help Firefighter Ken Walker,” has raised another $140,000 since Wednesday.
“The only word I can say is, overwhelming,” said Walker. “The support is phenomenal.”
Sunday’s event included a volunteer band, pizza, Walker’s friends and family, and dozens of firefighters from as far as Brighton, right outside of Rochester.
“It’s been unbelievable,” said Bob Brennan, the Gratwick company’s president.
Brennan said the idea for the event began on Wednesday right after he heard about the fire.
“I was determined to raise a positive out of what was a horrible tragedy,” he said.
As a result, the tables along the wall were overflowing with stuffed toys, clothes and household goods. The family has also received furniture – including tables, lamps, couches and a desk.
One such donor was Terri Grundy, a former North Tonawanda resident and retired elementary teacher, who came by while on a two-week vacation from Charlottesville, Va. She dropped off two boxes and a bag of donations on behalf of her friend, Barb Boccaccio.
“Of course I was appalled, (but) I would rather help than be appalled,” she said.
Grundy said that when she arrived in Western New York and heard Walker’s story on the news, she and her friend went sifting through Boccaccio’s stuff to retrieve anything they thought the Walkers could use. They came up with a handful of men’s clothing, toys and books.
Walker’s wife, Amanda, said she’s received messages from people all over the country, and even recently got an email from someone as far away as Puerto Rico asking to help.
“Such a great positive came out of such a terrible thing,” she said.
The tragedy began a few days before the fire, when the Walkers received a threatening letter on Monday demanding that the firefighter quit his job. The typed note used racial epithets and said “No one wants you in this city. You have until the end of the week to resign your position or you will regret it.”
Then, Wednesday morning, firefighters – alerted by smoke detectors – went to the Walkers’ apartment on Oliver Street in North Tonawanda to put out the fire. Nobody was injured, but Walker’s two cats died in the incident.
Now, Walker’s former friend, co-worker and across-the-street neighbor, Matthew Jurado, is in custody, accused of setting the fire. Jurado was arraigned Friday on a felony arson charge.
Jurado admitted burning Walker’s home, but denied the allegation that he wrote the letter, officials said.
A prosecutor said Friday in North Tonawanda City Court that authorities are continuing to investigate if the letter and the arson are linked, and whether Jurado was the author of the letter.
For now, the family is living with in-laws. They haven’t yet determined their plans or living arrangements.
“We’re just trying to take things day by day,” Amanda Walker said.
The fire company said that any excess donations will be given to charity.
“I just want to stress how grateful and appreciative we are,” Amanda Walker said. “We never expected this outpouring … Everyone has been so amazing.”