NORTH TONAWANDA – More than $100,000 has been donated to North Tonawanda’s only black firefighter since a suspicious fire damaged his family’s apartment, just days after he received a racist threatening letter that demanded he quit his fire department.
The outpouring of support for volunteer firefighter Kenneth Walker continued as North Tonawanda police Thursday arrested Matthew Jurado, 39, a recently fired firefighter who lived across the street from Walker. According to police, Jurado admits to setting the fire, but did not admit to sending the anonymous letter Walker said he received Monday that included racist remarks.
The possibly racially motivated fire captured the nation’s attention as news organizations across the country reported on the incidents, and people from across the country began donating.
“It’s unnecessary, but we’re grateful,” Walker said Thursday afternoon as he stood outside his burned apartment.
“We’re overwhelmed,” said Amanda Walker, his wife.
Investigators believe the fire was intentionally set shortly after noon Wednesday in the 1096 Oliver St. apartment Walker shared with his wife and their two young daughters, North Tonawanda Mayor Arthur G. Pappas said Thursday.
The couch in Walker’s apartment was burned to the springs, according to Charles Internicola, the owner of the four-unit apartment building where Walker lived. “From the looks of it, it appears the fire started on the top of the couch. You can see the scorch marks going up the wall behind it,” Internicola said.
Another volunteer firefighter from North Tonawanda, Shawn Moynihan, who said he did not know Walker, created a GoFundMe fundraising page on Wednesday afternoon to benefit the Walkers. Moynihan is a volunteer with the Bergholz Fire Department.
Walker said Wednesday on Facebook that he does not need any special treatment or a GoFundMe page, writing, “As I said before, this isn’t about being on the news or in the paper. I hate it actually. There’s no need for money, your kind words are more than enough. Thank you.”
He and his wife briefly visited their burned apartment on Thursday afternoon. While they were there, North Tonawanda resident John Karcz and his two daughters showed up. Karcz had given Walker a bag of used clothing earlier in the day. He returned with his children, Anastasia, 7, and Isabella, 5, because they wanted to donated a bag of toys to Walker’s two daughters.
“I raided my closet for clothes when I got home. My girls went through their playroom and picked out toys they wanted to give,” Karcz said.
“I feel happy I’m giving toys to the other children,” Anastasia Karcz said.
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.
North Tonawanda resident Sorcha Bell and her sister collected thank-you cards on Wednesday to show the Walker family support. Her husband, Dan Bell, said they took about 50 letters to Gratwick Hose to show their support.
“No member of our community should have to face racism,” said Dan Bell. “That kind of hatred doesn’t have a place in our society.”
He said Amanda Walker’s aunt works with him and told them that the Walker’s daughter, 4-year-old Chloe, loves to read and lost all her books in the fire.
“It’s not the first thing you would think of donating. They are looking for children’s books appropriate for ages 4 to 10,” he said.
“Giving doesn’t come in just money. It comes in show of support. The only way to combat hatred is with love,” said Bell. “He puts his life on the line for free as a volunteer firefighter.”
He said he is a member of the First Unitarian Church on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo and their church will pass the basket on Sunday to raise funds for the Walkers.
Bell said he wants Kenneth Walker to remain a member of their community and in the fire department, “as a shining example that hate doesn’t win.”
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.
Some of the other tenants of the four-unit apartment building were able to move back into their apartments on Thursday. But the Walkers’ apartment was damaged so badly that they will not be able to move back into it anytime soon, Internicola said.
“The (Walkers') apartment is going to have to be gutted. There’s no saving it,” the landlord said. “I don’t know if they’ll come back. But they are certainly welcome.”
The Walkers and their two young daughters were not home when the fire was discovered shortly after noon Wednesday. Two other tenants in the four-unit building were sleeping at the time, but escaped uninjured after hearing smoke detectors blaring. The Walker family's two cats died in the fire.
The Anti-Defamation League also expressed outrage Thursday over the racist letter and fire at Walker's apartment.
“We are deeply concerned and dismayed over this alleged attack against Mr. Walker and his family,” said Evan R. Bernstein, New York regional director at the ADL, an organization that fights anti-Semitism.