MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Form NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Imagine the block you live on being burnt to the ground. And now consider that the fire was started when local police dropped a bomb on your neighbors' house and that firefighters stood by as all the homes burned and 11 people died. That is what happened 20 years ago today in a West Philadelphia neighborhood. And for those who were close to the events, the horror that day still lives on. NPR's Laura Sullivan spoke to some of those people, and she has this report.
LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:
In the early 1980s, Ramona Africa was a senior at Temple University. A friend introduced her to a group called MOVE.
Ms. RAMONA AFRICA (MOVE): My mother was a beautician by trade, and she would, you know, curl my hair, put relaxers in my hair, all that stuff, from the time I was very young. When I joined MOVE and stopped combing my hair and let it grow naturally, she just thought I had lost my mind completely.
SULLIVAN: MOVE was a radical cultlike group that preached revolution, advocating a return to nature and a society without government, police or technology. The group took up residence on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia. It was a quiet tree-lined street of tidy row houses, except for the MOVE house. Windows and doors of 6221 Osage were barricaded with plywood. The group hoarded weapons, built a giant wooden bunker on the roof and used a bullhorn to scream obscenities all hours of the night.
Mr. GERALD RENFROW (Philadelphia Resident): This is the house right here where it all took place, where it all started.
SULLIVAN: Gerald Renfrow has lived here on Osage Avenue with his family for 20 years. Standing in front of what was once the MOVE house, he remembers what it was like to have the group as neighbors.
Mr. RENFROW: It was very stressful because there was nothing we could do. We were forced to deal with their confrontational mode. You know, we were trapped. So, you know, that's why we asked the city for some sort of resolution so that we could get on with our lives.
SULLIVAN: But what they got instead was one of the biggest urban policing tragedies in US history, one that left 61 homes burned to the ground and 11 people dead, five of them children. It all began at dawn, May 13th, when Mayor Wilson Goode held a press conference saying it was time to evict MOVE.
Mayor WILSON GOODE (Philadelphia): And I don't know of any other way to resolve their being in that house other than to ask them to leave and then if, in fact, they do not relieve, to remove them from the house.
SULLIVAN: Bill Richmond was the city's fire commissioner and one of dozens of police, firefighters and city officials positioned around the house to force the group out.
Mr. BILL RICHMOND (Former Fire Commissioner): And we were out there early on Monday morning, and that was the first time we saw 6200 Osage Avenue.
SULLIVAN: Richmond says police and firefighters huddled around street corners and cars to catch a glimpse of the wooden fortress the group had built on the roof.
Mr. RICHMOND: You just sensed there was something going on up there, but what, you didn't know. So we positioned and then, of course, the police commissioner went through his ultimatum. Nothing happened. And then the shooting started back and forth.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
Unidentified Man: There are some shots that are being fired, probably in the area along 62nd Street here.
SULLIVAN: Dozens of local press caught the events on tape.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
SULLIVAN: Hours passed as MOVE and police exchanged gunfire. MOVE had already had several violent confrontations with police in years past. Once incident in 1978 left a police officer dead. But this day, things would get a lot worse. Ramona Africa was one of seven adults inside the house.
Ms. AFRICA: We were all in the basement of our home. We heard, you know, the gunfire for a long time. The fire department used four deluge hoses for hours. Water was pouring down on us in the basement.
SULLIVAN: At 5:30 that evening, a Philadelphia police helicopter could be seen circling the house. An officer stepped out onto the strut and dropped a small black bundle, a bomb, onto the roof.
(Soundbite of explosion; helicopter; crowd noise)
SULLIVAN: The event was broadcast live on local television.
Lieutenant FRANK POWELL (Philadelphia Police Department): I dropped the bomb.
SULLIVAN: Police Lieutenant Frank Powell was the man in the helicopter.
Lt. POWELL: The idea was to disable the bunker so that we would--the bunker controlled the street. If we disable the bunker, at least we can control the street.
SULLIVAN: Inside, MOVE didn't know what had happened.
Ms. AFRICA: We felt it. You know, we could feel the house shake. We didn't know exactly what it was at that point.
SULLIVAN: Shortly after, smoke could be seen rising from the MOVE house. Gerald Renfrow and his wife, who had been evacuated with the rest of their neighbors, went to a friend's house.
Mr. RENFROW: When we rang their bell, they said, `Come in here. They just dropped a bomb on your block.' And we were like, `What?' And so that's when my wife said, `Oh, they're gonna burn everything down.' I said, `Connie(ph), no.' I said, `You know, there's fire engines all around. The fire's gonna be snuffed out immediately, I think, so we don't have to worry about a thing.'
SULLIVAN: But the fire wasn't snuffed out. While a dozen fire trucks surrounded the block, police and firefighters let the fire burn, watching it spread from house to house until the entire block was in flames. Four hours later, the Renfrows' house and 60 others were gone, and everyone in the MOVE house except for Ramona Africa and a 13-year-old boy was dead. Ramona Africa says police fired on MOVE members as they tried to escape the burning house. Police say the MOVE members ran in and out of the house firing at them. Police ordered their officers and firefighters to stay back. Fire Commissioner Bill Richmond stood on the corner watching the houses burn.
Mr. RICHMOND: There was phenomena there where one house would eventually ignite the next house and it would build up and build up until it would blow the windows right out of it, and then it would move on to the next.
SULLIVAN: Finally, just before midnight, the firefighters put out the flames. As television cameras panned the burned-out wreckage of two city blocks, the mayor, police and firefighters were quickly on the defensive. A commission investigated the bombing, and the city promised to rebuild the destroyed houses in a year. Lawsuits were filed and a grand jury convened. In the end, no one was indicted. Two officials resigned, and Mayor Goode was re-elected. But for those closest to what happened, the aftermath didn't bring resolution.
Lt. POWELL: I can remember that day like yesterday.
SULLIVAN: Lieutenant Frank Powell says he'll always be known as the man who dropped the bomb.
Lt. POWELL: Just never seems to go away. People always bring it up. You know, you meet somebody, they say, `You know who this guy is?' And they'll--`You know, he was at MOVE.' And people always remember.
SULLIVAN: Powell says MOVE was a shadow they all had to live under, and for many officers, it was devastating.
Lt. POWELL: A lot of guys had problems. I know one good friend of mine took his life, and he told another good friend of mine that it was--he just didn't want to be bothered with it anymore. And my buddy thought he was kidding, and they next day they found him dead.
Mr. RICHMOND: This is a picture of the actual--there were actually two bunkers on the roof. This was the forward bunker.
SULLIVAN: In the basement of fire Commissioner Bill Richmond's home, the walls are lined with memories of the bombing: photographs, newspaper articles, books.
Mr. RICHMOND: I feel terrible about this event. I think it was a bad event. It didn't turn out the way anybody planned it. And, of course, the tragic loss of the kids.
SULLIVAN: MOVE survived and now lives just a mile from Osage Avenue. Ramona Africa says these years have changed her.
Ms. AFRICA: My attitude, which it should not have been, was that now I have the truth and you don't know anything. I know what's going on. And, you know, I was very arrogant with my mother, and that didn't help things. I didn't show her the understanding that I was given by MOVE.
(Soundbite of children playing)
SULLIVAN: The MOVE house today looks like every other house on the block, with a clean front and a well-tended yard. The eight or so children in the yard all have long, uncombed hair, but they're riding bikes and playing with toys, something absolutely forbidden for MOVE children 20 years ago. People living on this street say they've been good neighbors, blending in and peaceful. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.
SIEGEL: You can hear Laura Sullivan's interview with the father of the lone survivor and more on the MOVE bombing at our Web site, npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.