Remembering The Day Philadelphia Burned

May 13, 2010

The Inquirer has a number of articles today on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the MOVE headquarters in West Philadelphia and the subsequent fire that ensued, killing six adults and five children. The fire also destroyed the entire block of Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.

I know a lot of people who have lived at one time or another in Philadelphia and have claimed ownership of sorts regarding a circumstance or event that they call “distinctly Philadelphian” or something like that, with more than a touch of snobbery. However, the MOVE fire definitely falls into that category, and to say it’s nothing to brag about is an understatement.

This Wikipedia article takes you to more details on the radical group’s history, including a 1978 confrontation that killed Police Officer James Ramp. It also links to an Inquirer multimedia presentation, including interviews and other materials.

Today’s Inky contains an article describing the ordeal faced by those who have stayed on Osage Avenue after all these years; as the story tells us…

Thirty-seven of the 61 homes here, including those on either side of her redbrick rowhouse, sit dark, bought up by the city and left abandoned. Their windows and doors are boarded, some marred by graffiti, with ominous, padlocked bars across the doors.

At 6221, the former MOVE house, yellowed junk mail lies on the small patio, and insulation flaps in the breeze.

The story also tells us about the payouts offered to the homeowners that were subsequently knocked down on appeal, as well as the shoddy construction of Ernest Edwards, the “contractor” responsible for rebuilding the homes and who ended up as the only person to go to jail over the entire incident (noted here…it should also be noted that the city’s trade unions offered to rebuild the homes for free, but the offer was rejected).

As part of the Inky’s coverage, reporter Connie Langland interviews the life form known as Ramona Africa (here), who claims to this day that she and the other MOVE members inhabiting the compound weren’t permitted to leave their burning dwelling due to gunfire, which, unfortunately, was corroborated by the MOVE investigating commission in 1986. I will also grant her point that, if anyone in city government had possessed an ounce of common sense, the adult members could have been apprehended without putting the children at risk, to say nothing of torching the neighborhood.

After that, though, she and I definitely part company. The fact that she somehow remains free after being part of a gang that terrorized a city neighborhood for years is somehow difficult for yours truly to fathom.

The Inquirer’s coverage also includes interviews with former Mayor Wilson Goode (here) and former Fire Commissioner William Richmond (here…former Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor, the person who probably had more to do with the events of that day than anyone, did not allow an interview for today’s coverage…I can recall, during the MOVE investigation, that Richmond seemed to be the only one in authority not trapped in some kind of a fog and who recognized the scope of the nightmare that day.).

Also, I have to give the Inquirer credit for doing the right thing and publishing an opinion column on this from former columnist Clark DeLeon; to say he took the events of that day personally is an understatement, having been on-scene as part of the paper’s coverage that day. He basically believed that the deaths of the children in the MOVE fire was a blight upon the city’s conscience, including anyone living there at the time; I lived in Philadelphia then, and yes it was terrible, but I never believed that I was personally at fault. Still, I admired DeLeon’s passion on this, and still do (he also blames anyone who voted to return Goode to office after the fire; Goode was running against former Mayor Frank Rizzo, and though Goode’s reputation was justly stained, at least he didn’t fail a lie detector test as Rizzo did).

(Also, you can tell that DeLeon is speaking truth to power, as they say, by the volume of the wingnut bellowing in the comments.)

For someone not familiar with the events of May 13, 1985 involving MOVE, it’s hard to communicate how surreal a day it truly was. As we would later learn from the MOVE Commission Report, as Goode watched the events unfold, he thought the fire raging out of control was snow on his television set. Also, local reporter Harvey Clark, among others, did an outstanding job of communicating the day’s events as an entire city block was destroyed.

(Also, to get an idea of how divisive an episode it was, I should tell you that I once got into an argument with a guy I worked with out in the Chester County suburbs who claimed that the C4 dropped from the helicopter onto the roof of the MOVE compound didn’t start the fire, but the MOVE people started it themselves, and the news media edited the tape on purpose to make it look like the C4 started the fire – I ended up telling him what he could do with his tin foil hat…we each eventually resigned anyway.)

It was incomprehensible to contemplate the horrific events as they unfolded on that day. Twenty five years later, with the memory of those events fading somewhat, it is only slightly less so now.

Update 5/15/10: I said earlier that Ernest Edwards was the only person to go to jail over MOVE, but that is incorrect; Ramona Africa ended up serving seven years in prison also before she won a half-million-dollar judgment from the city (unbelievable). Also, a state grand jury overruled the original MOVE Commison finding that gunshots prevented the group members from leaving the house as it burned (hat tip for both of these clarifications to the Inquirer clip here).

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