NORTH TONAWANDA -- A fire broke out Wednesday afternoon in the apartment of a volunteer firefighter who received a threatening and racist letter earlier this week.
Firefighters were called early Wednesday afternoon to the blaze at an apartment house at 1096 Oliver St. in North Tonawanda where Kenneth Walker lives.
No one was injured.
When the fire was discovered, Walker said that no one was in his apartment, where he lives with his wife and their two children. But two tenants were sleeping in two other apartments in the building. Alerted by smoke detectors, they fled as firefighters arrived.
Two of the family's cats were killed in the fire.
Amanda Walker, his wife, said she believes that the fire was retaliation for her husband not resigning from the Gratwick Hose volunteer fire department, as the threatening anonymous letter demanded.
“We believe it was retaliation. The letter said if he didn’t resign from the fire company, he’d regret it,” she said.
The letter was typewritten on white paper. “We found it in our mailbox Monday night,” she said.
North Tonawanda Fire Chief Joseph Sikora declined to say if the cause of the blaze is suspicious.
“The fire is under investigation. That’s all I can say,” Sikora said. “We called in the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control for a couple more investigators to make sure we cover everything.”
Walker met Wednesday afternoon with FBI agents, and he also met with agents Tuesday, said his uncle, Robert Sands, of Buffalo.
“Ken’s talking with the FBI just about everything that has transpired,” said Sands, who drove to the fire scene because he was concerned about his relatives.
Mayor Arthur G. Pappas said he wants whomever is responsible to be brought to justice and dealt with accordingly.
“We’re totally disgusted that anyone would continue to do this,” Pappas said after the fire. “Whoever is responsible is certainly doing something that’s very distasteful and hateful.”
Walker has been a member of the fire department for two years. He said he did not know if he will resign.
“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.
The Walkers celebrated their one-year anniversary last month. They have two daughters, Chloe, 4, and Harmoni, 6 months. Amanda has lived in the apartment for four years and Walker has lived there two and half years.
A neighbor called the fire into 911 after spotting smoke coming from a window at the four-unit, one-story apartment building, said another tenant there.
City of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda paid firefighters responded to the fire, along with volunteer firefighters, including Walker’s Gratwick Hose Co.
Another tenant of the building, William Markey, said he was asleep when he heard a smoke alarm sounding in the building’s common hallway shortly before 12:30. Then he heard the smoke alarm in his apartment sound. As he fled the building, he knocked loudly on the apartment door of a neighbor, Jordan Garrow, who was asleep. They escaped out the front door together.
Walker said he was at work in North Tonawanda when he was called by a neighbor, he said. “I received a call that my house was on fire.” Walker said he arrived within 10 minutes and called his wife, who was at work as a cashier in a retail store in Niagara Falls.
The couple said they did not have renter’s insurance and did not know how much of a loss they suffered in the fire.
“We lost our pets, and they were like family,” he said.
Tenants of all four apartments in the building will be temporarily displaced, said the building’s owner, Charles Internicola, of Grand Island.
“They are great tenants and have never been a problem” he said of the Walkers. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
One of the other tenants, Michelle Clark, said the threatening letter sent to Walker was a disgrace. “I think it’s horrible someone could do that because of a person’s skin color,” she said.
Other firefighters said they also were shocked at the threatening letter.
“It’s totally unacceptable. It’s sickening. I’m appalled. I thought we were way past that,” Sikora said Wednesday.
Walker took the letter to headquarters on Monday night and police were contacted immediately to begin a “full-on investigation,” Sikora said.
“The N-word was used a couple of times,” said Sikora. “They wanted him to resign his position.”
“And he’s a good guy, a good worker,” Sikora said Tuesday night. “This is something I never thought I would have to deal with as a fire chief and it really has got me upset. I couldn’t apologize enough. We’ll help him any way we can.”
Sikora and residents at North Tonawanda’s Night Out event on Tuesday expressed a range of emotions about the hate letter, from disbelief to shame and disgust.
Pappas opened the Common Council meeting Tuesday night by addressing the issue.
“Needless to say we are appalled by this situation as it does not represent what the City of North Tonawanda stands for,” said Pappas. “I as mayor and the Common Council will not tolerate this type of behavior in our community. Any threats against our police, fire or other personnel are taken very seriously, as it is for all of our citizens.”
Pappas said both the local police and the FBI were involved in the investigation and they would provide whatever resources they need to “find the perpetrator or perpetrators of this cowardly act.”
Walker, who spoke to WGRZ-TV, Channel 2, on Tuesday reported that the letter said blacks “are not allowed to be firefighters” and, “No one wants you in our city.”
He said he was scared because someone dropped the unsigned letter in his mailbox and he has a family – his wife and two young children, who were home on Monday.
But he said Wednesday that he was not going to be intimidated and also that he hoped this was an isolated incident.
“Resign from the fire department would obviously please them and I don’t want to please them. At the same time I am going to do what I have to do to protect my family. I am still going to live my life,” Walker said.
Walker said he was not looking for any type of publicity after he received the letter. He felt compelled to inform officials at the fire company of the threat. He did not want his fellow firefighters endangered.
“I wanted to make sure they were aware. “
He explained that he did not know how the contents of the letter came to be publicly released.
“But that’s not a bad thing,” he said.
Sikora said threats like this are taken very seriously, especially in light of recent threats to police officers nationally that have turned violent.
“You have got to take these things very seriously now,” said Sikora.
Federal prosecutors are looking into the racist and threatening letter, said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. Hochul said the letter is being reviewed, but declined to comment on what possible crimes may have been committed by the unknown author.
“The public should know that we take all such incidents extremely seriously,” Hochul said in a statement Wednesday.
The FBI is not involved in the fire investigation, but remains on the case involving the threatening letter, Sikora said.
Walker and his wife both made a point that they have received a lot of support from the community, in person and on social media.