On May 13, 1985, a bomb was dropped on a row house in Philadelphia, unleashing a relentless fire that eventually burned down 61 houses, killed 11 people (including five children) and injured dozens.
The fire department stood by idly. The Philadelphia Police Department did the same. The fire raged on, swallowing up home after home until more than 200 were without shelter in an entire community distrustful of the individuals responsible for the blaze.
It’s a shameful part of recent American history that’s somehow been buried under 28 years and other destructions that have fallen on the city of Philadelphia. But in the wake of Birdie Africa’s death this week, the only child to survive the bombing, GlobalGrind decided to take a trip back in time to explore what happened the day American bombed its own people.
– The MOVE Organization is a Philadelphia-based black liberation group that preached revolution and advocated a return to nature lifestyle. They lived communally and vowed to lead a life uninterrupted by the government, police or technology. They were passionate supporters of animal rights and members adopted vegan diets. Members also adopted the surname “Africa.” Often times they would engage in public demonstrations related to issues they deemed important.
– MOVE did, however, have a past with the police. Since inception in 1972, the group was looked at as a threat to the Philadelphia Police Department. In 1978, police raided their Powelton Village home and as a result, one police officer died after being shot in the head. Nine MOVE members were arrested, charged with third-degree murder and sent to prison. They argued that the police officer was shot in the back of his head on his way into the home, challenging the claim that he was shot by members inside the house. Eventually the group relocated to the infamous house on 6221 Osage Street.
– There are differing reports about the group and how troublesome they actually were. According to AP, neighbors complained about their house on Osage, which was barricaded with plywood and allegedly contained a multitude of weapons. It has been said that the group built a giant wooden bunker on the roof and used a bullhorn to “scream obscenities at all hours of the night,” which angered those living in nearby row houses. Eventually, they turned to city officials for help, which put into motion the events of May 13, 1985.
– On that day armed police, the fire department and city officials gathered at the house in an attempt to clear it out and arrest MOVE members who had been indicted for crimes like parole violation and illegal possession of firearms. When police tossed tear gas canisters into the home, MOVE members fired back. In turn, the police discharged their guns.
– Eventually a police helicopter flew over the home and dropped two bombs on the row house. A ferocious blaze ensued.
– Witness and MOVE members say that when members started to run out of the burning structure to escape a fiery death, police continued to fire their weapons.
– The fire department delayed putting out the flames. After the blaze, they claimed they didn’t want to put their men in harms way, as MOVE members were still firing their guns. But MOVE members and witnesses say the wait was deliberate.
– In the end 11 people, including MOVE’s founder John Africa, were dead. Five children died in the home.
– The only child survivor. His name is Birdie Africa but it was later changed to Michael Ward. He ran out of the burning house naked and covered in flames. He survived his third-degree burns and went on to live a normal life, although he was forever with the lifelong burn scars on his abdomen, arms and face.
– Michael Ward was found dead on Friday, Sept. 20, 2013 in the jacuzzi aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean. He was on vacation with his family. Initial autopsy reports say he drowned.
– In the end, no one from the city government was charged criminally.