RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
For the people of Philadelphia, today marks the 25th anniversary of an event many would just as soon forget. The city is still haunted by a massive police operation that went badly wrong. The police were trying to roust members of a radical armed group calling itself MOVE. The group was living in a compound in a row house, and to get them out, the police set off explosives, which led to a massive and deadly fire. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Fiedler has this look back.
ELIZABETH FIEDLER: The Philadelphia Police Department's assault on the MOVE compound came after months of mounting tension. MOVE was composed of African-Americans who practiced a cult-like, back-to-nature lifestyle, took the last name of Africa, and regularly brandished weapons.
In the months leading up to the 1985 confrontation, MOVE members fortified their west Philadelphia row house on Osage Avenue to withstand an armed assault and tormented neighbors with profane tirades on bullhorns.
The day before the bombing, neighbors of the MOVE house were told to leave. Police were on high alert: An officer had been killed a few years earlier in a fatal confrontation with MOVE.
This time, police tried to drive the MOVE members out with tear gas, leading to a gunfight. Just before 5:30 p.m., police dropped a satchel of explosives onto the roof.
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FIEDLER: Officials decided to let the resulting fire burn until a fortified bunker on the roof was gone - but the fire spread out of control and engulfed the entire block.
Thomas Mapp was on the road working as a truck driver when he heard what had happened to his block back in Philadelphia.
Mr. THOMAS MAPP (Truck driver): I cut the radio on a little later and find out what happened to my neighborhood. When I cut the radio on, I heard them say Osage burned down. I didn't believe it. I said, you can't burn no whole block down.
FIEDLER: Connie Renfrow was one of the Osage Avenue residents who returned to her home after the bombing.
Ms. CONNIE RENFROW: There was nothing really there but the steps and the railing. Everything else was burned down to the ground: all our memories, all our children's growth patterns, my husband's pictures of his parents. And what hurts so bad, even 25 years later, when I go to look for something I say, oh, that's right. It got burned up - burned up in the fire.
FIEDLER: One adult and a 13-year-old boy from inside the MOVE house survived. Eleven others died, including five children.
Thomas Mapp didn't want to see the neighborhood right away.
Mr. MAPP: You see how bad it looked when they burned it out? Ooh. Especially when you didn't do nothing to cause it. When you found out all them kids died in there, shoot. That's a real hard thing to take.
FIEDLER: A blue ribbon panel concluded the bombing was reckless and ill-conceived. The nightmare has continued for the people who lived on the block. The city hired a contractor to rebuild the homes, and residents have dealt with leaks and shoddy construction.
After 15 years of problems with the homes, the city offered families $150,000 to pick up and leave. For the people who still live there, it's impossible to forget the anniversary. The boarded-up houses that fill the block are a daily reminder of the deadly 1985 disaster.
An 89-year-old woman on the block says to mark the anniversary, she's going to stay inside and close her door. Twenty-five years in, she's tired of talking about it.
For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Fiedler, in Philadelphia.
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