Kenneth D. Walker has never owned a home. That will change soon.
The story of North Tonawanda’s only African-American firefighter, whose apartment was torched two days after he received a racist letter, touched people across the country who reached out to help him.
Walker said he has received about $150,000 from an online fundraising effort started by a man he had never met. Now he and his wife, Amanda, are house hunting.
“We’re grateful. It’s a lot. It’s overwhelming,” Walker said in an interview with The Buffalo News. “We’ve never had any experiences in buying a house, so it’s new. There’s a lot of moving parts with it, but I got a lot of people from the fire hall and a lot of people I just know personally willing to help.”
He also is overwhelmed by the strangers who have reached out to help or to offer words of support and encouragement, like Shawn Moynihan, the man who started the fundraising campaign on the gofundme website that proved so successful.
Walker said he did not meet Moynihan, of the Bergholz Volunteer Fire Company in Wheatfield, until a charity event for Walker and his family was held at the Gratwick fire hall Aug. 7.
“I thanked him,” Walker said. “We really appreciate it.”
And when he attended Firemen’s Day last week at the Erie County Fair, Walker said he probably shook hands with 200 people, many of whom offered to help.
“Two weeks ago I was just a regular person, working a 40-hour-a-week job, earning a living,” he reflected. “People say ‘Ken Walker,’ and they say, ‘Is that the guy from North Tonawanda?’ ”
The story by now is well known. Walker received a racist letter from a still-unidentified source Aug. 1, demanding that he resign from Gratwick Hose Company, where he has been a member for 2½ years. Two days later, a man who lived across the street in North Tonawanda allegedly entered the Walkers’ apartment, emptied a bottle of lighter fluid on the couch, and lit it.
Walker received the news of the apartment fire from the same neighbor accused of setting the blaze, Matthew A. Jurado.
“I answered the phone and he said, ‘Kenny, you need to get home. Your apartment’s on fire,’ ” Walker recalled.
That still bewilders Walker.
“We never had any issues,” Walker said. “I wouldn’t say we were the best of friends, we wouldn’t hang out on the weekends or anything like that. We lived right across the street from each other, so we saw each other all the time. There were a few occasions during the wintertime when we’d go on (fire) calls together. He would ride in my car or I’d ride in his. We were more or less co-workers.”
Jurado later told police he was angry with the North Tonawanda Fire Department, apparently for not allowing him to join the volunteer company for lack of completed training.
“He wanted to come to Gratwick,” Walker said. “Based on him not completing his training or whatever issues he had, it would have prevented him from joining Gratwick anyway. I told him that,” Walker said.
Police have yet to determine who sent the letter that started it all, but Walker suspects Jurado.
“People ask me if I’m angry,” Walker said. “I’m more hurt.”
But he said the loss of his cats killed in the fire was hard to take.
“For someone to do something inhumane like that when you have animals yourself is just ridiculous,” Walker said. Jurado has several cats and dogs.
Walker also said he would have been willing to help Jurado get into the volunteer fire company.
“I know a lot of people in the department,” he said. “I could have had a conversation with someone to see what we could do to rectify the situation instead of him having to burn my house down.”
Walker is now working on his family’s future. He and his wife want to stay in North Tonawanda.
Since the fire, the Walkers, who have two daughters, ages 4 years and 6 months, have been staying with relatives, sometimes in Grand Island, sometimes in Kenmore.
“We’re going to try to find a house, hopefully out here,” Walker said of North Tonawanda. “If there’s nothing available out here, obviously we’ll look elsewhere.”
Walker, who is training to become an emergency medical technician, said he wants to continue being a volunteer firefighter at Gratwick, but that depends on where he buys his house.
“If we stay here, I’ll continue on. If not, maybe I’ll go to another department,” Walker said.
Since the fire, he hasn’t gone on any calls because he no longer is conveniently located for immediate response.
He works full-time in packing, shipping and receiving at Audubon Machinery in North Tonawanda.
Strangers and gifts continue appearing in his life.
As Walker was talking to a reporter outside the fire hall on Friday, Sara Mars of Wheatfield arrived, wanting to know if donations still were being accepted “for that man who had the fire.”
Walker walked to Mars’ car and was handed a never-used electric griddle.
“I just wanted to give you something,” she told Walker. “I wanted to wish you the best of luck, and I hope you get back on your feet soon. If I had little kids, I’d give you clothing, but I don’t.”
Why was she donating?
“I figured the poor guy probably lost everything,” she told a reporter. “I’d rather give it to someone who can use it.”
Walker said he is moved by the kindness of strangers.
“It’s great. People help out in tragedies,” Walker said. “I was never one for publicity, to get my name in lights or anything like that. But I’m grateful, very appreciative of what the department has done, what the City of North Tonawanda has done, and people from everywhere. I can’t even put it into words.”