Skip to main content

Fire guts home of San Francisco dog walker targeted with racist threats

A building's upper floors are engulfed in flames, emitting thick black smoke, as firefighters, including one observing, and a fire truck are present.
Fire officials respond to a fire at Terry Williams’ home in the 900 block of Grove Street on Tuesday. The one-alarm fire broke out just weeks after Williams, a longtime resident and dog walker in Alamo Square, says he received two racist packages at his front door. | Source: Courtesy San Francisco Fire Department

A fire broke out Tuesday at the home of a longtime San Francisco dog walker who has recently been targeted by racist threats, sending his 81- and 79-year-old parents to the hospital, according to the man and officials.

San Francisco Fire Capt. Jonathan Baxter said officials responded to the residence on Grove Street between Fillmore and Steiner streets just after 11:30 a.m.

Firefighters rescued two people, including one whom Baxter said was “essentially trapped upstairs.” The second person tried to escape the house but was “overcome by the heat and smoke” and was helped out of the blaze.

Both individuals were taken to a local hospital, Baxter said. One was in a serious condition, while the other suffered moderate injuries. He later said that both were expected to recover from their injuries.

Firefighters clear debris from inside the Williams family's home on Grove Street after a fire gutted the residence on Tuesday. | Source: George Kelly/The Standard

Terry Williams, a born-and-raised Alamo Square resident known for walking dogs in the neighborhood’s iconic park, said his parents were the two individuals rescued and sent to the hospital. In the last month, Williams has found two packages left at his front door, each containing a blackface doll with a noose around its neck and racist slurs written on it.

Williams told The Standard he was at a City Hall meeting with the Mayor’s Office about the incidents when he learned about the fire. James Caldwell, the mayor’s chief officer of criminal justice and public safety, confirmed that he was in the room with Williams when he got the call about the fire and drove him home.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Williams said as he stood outside with his three Rottweilers. “I didn’t even know what happened. I wasn’t here.”

Four adults stand in the sun by a building’s side, showing various casual poses and expressions, accompanied by a hidden dog on a leash.
Terry Williams waits outside the scene of Tuesday's fire with his dogs and neighbors. | Source: George Kelly/The Standard

Both Caldwell and District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston were at the scene on Tuesday. Preston told The Standard that he’s been in regular contact with Williams since the racist packages started showing up.

“I’ve known Terry for years,” Preston said. “He is a beloved member of this community, and it is absolutely horrible what has happened to him over these last several weeks.”

Baxter said it was too early to provide an origin and cause of the fire.

“Any investigation—even if there wasn’t the issues that are attached to this house—takes [time],” Baxter said. “We’re aware of the items that are attached to the address, but we address every fire the same: with tenacity to find the origin and the cause of the fire.”

Firefighters work at a fire-damaged building with charred windows, as men overlook the scene, and fire trucks line the street.
Both of Williams' parents were hospitalized for injuries they sustained in the fire. An official said Tuesday afternoon that they were expected to recover. | Source: George Kelly/The Standard
A firefighter stands inside a fire-damaged building with blackened walls and shattered windows.
Firefighters work inside the burned-out residence on Tuesday afternoon. | Source: George Kelly/The Standard

Speaking to reporters, Williams described the chaos of learning about the fire and racing home to make sure his parents were OK. He said his phone was blowing up with calls.

“I was in an interview I took off running, left running out of City Hall,” he said.

Williams choked up as he recalled thanking firefighters for rescuing his parents.

“I’m not good right now,” he said. “I’m just worried about my parents, their house and everything. I feel like I let my parents down.”

Since the first package arrived at Williams’ doorstep on April 26, neighbors, clients and others in the community have rallied around the 49-year-old dog walker to offer solace and support. A GoFundMe campaign launched to help his family install security cameras on their property has raised over $17,000 as of Tuesday.

A sign in the window on the third-floor apartment next door to the burned-out residence read, “Show up for your community. Show up for Terry.”

Noz Nozawa, a longtime neighbor of Williams’, told The Standard she came out to see what happened after smelling smoke and hearing sirens.

“We don’t know what caused this fire, but I have no doubt that the same perpetrator is responsible for this, and that really scares me,” Nozawa said. “It went from this is stupid and also terrifying and hateful to: They could have murdered people today.”

A sign in a window reads "SHOW UP for your COMMUNITY Show up. Vote." It is handwritten with blue borders.
Neighbors and other community members have rallied around Williams since the first package containing racist materials showed up on his doorstep. | Source: George Kelly/The Standard

Rev. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco NAACP and pastor at the Third Baptist Church, watched as firefighters broke down the interior of the burned home on Tuesday afternoon.

“If a brother like Terry Williams can be harassed, threatened, intimidated, terrorized with his family in San Francisco, it says that more good people need to come aboard to make it uncomfortable for bad people,” Brown said. “This should be a tipping point in San Francisco.”

Sitting in his car outside his house on Tuesday night, Terry Williams’ father Luddie stroked the bubbled skin across his forehead. Charred furniture sat nearby on the sidewalk. The smell of smoke still lingered in the air.

Luddie Williams told The Standard that his wife, Carolyn, first smelled smoke. Moments later, Williams saw his living room ablaze.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I was just trying to get me and my wife the hell out of there.”

When asked if he suspected arson, he said he “didn’t know one way or another.”

A heap of charred wooden debris and furniture lies on a city street corner near pale green and white buildings with a stop sign visible.
Charred furniture and debris are seen piled outside the Williams family's home late Tuesday | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Williams said his wife was stable but was being kept at the hospital for observation. He said he planned to stay with his daughter in the Bayview Tuesday night, adding that he doesn’t know if and when he’ll be able to return home.

“I’m just glad the fire department got there in time,” Williams said. “We could have lost the neighbors to the left and right of us too.”

No arrests have been made in connection with the racist threats, which police are investigating as hate crimes.

“How are we going to recover from this? How will I recover from this?” Terry Williams said. “I already had enough on my plate already. Now I’ve got this on my plate. I don’t know what to do—I’m going to keep fighting.”

George Kelly can be reached at
Garrett Leahy can be reached at