• U.S.

It Looks Just Like a War Zone

18 minute read
Frank Trippett

The afternoon was sultry, and along the deserted block of neat brick row houses in the Cobbs Creek section of West Philadelphia, an ominous calm had descended. Suddenly the thwack of rotors broke the silence. A blue-and-white Pennsylvania State Police helicopter arced in low over the roof-line. It made several passes over the street, then hovered 60 ft. above the two-story home at 6221 Osage Avenue.

In the helicopter cabin, Lieut. Frank Powell, chief of Philadelphia’s bomb- disposal unit, hefted a canvas satchel holding two 1-lb. tubes filled with a water-based gel explosive. After lighting its 45-sec. fuse, Powell leaned out of the helicopter bay and dropped the device on the roof. His target: a fortified, bunker-like cubicle about 6 ft. square and 8 ft. high.

All was quiet for the next half-minute or so. Huddled on rooftops and in the doorways of nearby row houses, flak-jacketed police officers put their hands over their ears. Then there was an orange flash and a powerful explosion that sent wood, metal and a cloud of dust flying into the air. Said a resident of adjacent Pine Street: “The blast didn’t just shake the windows, it shook our entire house.”

From behind police lines, residents of Osage Avenue, who had been evacuated the previous evening, watched in disbelief as a column of thick black smoke rose from the rooftop. Minutes later flames appeared, mere flickers at first, then a mountain of orange. The fire raged unchecked as officials delayed responding so the flames (they later said) would burn through the roof and drop the bunker. Then they planned to drop tear gas through the opening. Just so, they hoped to flush out the occupants of the house, a bizarre radical cult known as Move.

But the strategic fire soon became a phantasmagoric inferno. Half an hour after the explosion, firemen finally moved to control the blaze. There was a rattle of gunfire in or around the Move compound, and according to some reports, the police returned it. Ordered back out of range, fire fighters watched as the flames spread first to adjacent houses, then down the street.

On Pine Street, Barbara Johnson, wife of Philadelphia Daily News Staff Writer Tyree Johnson, viewed the blaze from her front porch. “You could see the flames, 20, 30 feet above the rooftops, reaching over like blazing fingers, igniting houses first on Osage, then adjacent houses on Pine. Soon a solid wave of flame was sweeping down the street.”

Suddenly a naked child dashed from the flaming wreckage near the Move headquarters. A team of policemen charged in pursuit. “They grabbed him by the shoulders and just carried him off,” says Johnson. “His feet kept paddling, like he was walking on air.” The terrified child was probably Birdie Africa, 13, who with Ramona Africa, 30, was one of the two known survivors from the Move compound.

As firemen in black-and-yellow gear crept on their arms and knees along the sidewalk, hoses coiling behind them, police in blue jumpsuits ran from doorway to doorway and, as some observers claimed, paused to return gunfire from the Move house with an array of shotguns and automatic weapons. Cameraman Pete Kane of Channel 10, a local CBS affiliate, watched the action from an upper story window just 100 yds. from Move’s headquarters. “Debris was flying everywhere,” he says. “Entire trees were exploding in fire.” As night fell, the flames tinged the Philadelphia horizon red. Finally, at 11:47 p.m., even < as houses continued to burn, the fire department declared the blaze under control.

In Move’s headquarters, authorities found eleven bodies, four of them children. The fire had destroyed 53 houses and severely damaged eight others. It left some 240 people homeless. The financial cost: at least $8 million. The historic City of Brotherly Love was numb, the onlooking world aghast. In newspapers and on television, the story created a first-glance impression that Philadelphia police had launched a cruel military operation against an entire neighborhood.

Philadelphians understood the episode to be an extreme case of Murphy’s Law, when everything that could go wrong went even worse. But even so they were shocked by the devastation of an area whose residents –teachers, nurses, civil servants, factory workers — were known for their flower gardens and congenial block parties. Ronald Merriweather, whose home escaped damage, looked at the smouldering ruins of other houses and said, “It looks just like a war zone. The neighborhood was here and now it’s gone.” Families that had evacuated supposedly for a day found themselves refugees in the emergency shelter that the Red Cross had established in the parish hall of St. Carthage Roman Catholic Church, or staying in dormitory rooms at city universities. When they returned to look at their homes, or what was left of them, many wept.

The disastrous episode provoked widespread criticism and questioning of the Philadelphia police tactics. Should a bomb have been used at all in an urban location? On a house occupied by children as well as wanted adults? Shouldn’t the authorities have known fire might result? Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation in Washington, said the tactic was, at the very least, “an extreme police response.” Mayor Ed Koch of New York said he would fire a police commissioner who even proposed such a “stupid” idea. Even those who held criticism in check could hardly help wondering how in the name of sanity it all had come about.

Mayor W. Wilson Goode immediately accepted full responsibility for everything that happened. He was prompt to pledge, in a visit to the emergency shelter at St. Carthage Church, that the city would rebuild the houses lost in the fire, and at no cost to the owners. He promised to make the neighborhood residents “whole again.” With perhaps too much optimism, he promised that reconstruction would be completed by Christmas. Goode insisted that the fire, one of the worst in Philadelphia’s history, was simply the result of an accident, not bad judgment. According to the mayor, Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor and Managing Director Leo A. Brooks decided at the site of the action to use the explosive device, then obtained his approval some 20 min. before the drop. The mayor waved aside criticism as mere “second- guessing” and declared that, facing the same situation, he would make the same decision “again and again and again.” Yet postmortems turned up reasons to wonder whether the drop-a-bomb decision had been thoughtfully made.

The fire was the culmination of a drama that had long been fraught with danger — and even the possibility of disaster. For more than a year the mostly black middle-class neighborhood residents had been pressing the city to act against Move. Founded in 1972 by a former handyman who changed his name from Vincent Leaphart to John Africa and gave his surname to all his followers, Move professes to be a back-to-nature movement but has always struck outsiders as an exotic cult enamored of rancid, anarchic practices. Membership has probably never exceeded 100. Move has pretended to reject modern technology, but has embraced it readily enough in the form of weapons. Move’s beliefs have never seemed quite comprehensible, manifested as they are in an unfocused principle that natural processes should not be disturbed. Translated, that means anything from eating raw meat to forgoing artificial heat.

The Move property on Osage Avenue had become notorious for its abundant litter of garbage and human waste and for its scurrying rats and dozens of dogs. Bullhorns blared forth obscene tirades and harangues at all times of day and night. Move members customarily kept their children out of both clothes and school. They physically assaulted some neighbors and threatened others. Move members in two other Philadelphia houses have not earned any similar notoriety (though they have been watched recently by police).

The Osage block association arranged a meeting with Move members on Mother’s Day last May. “We were trying to give and take, and there wasn’t any give and take,” recalls Oris (“Buck”) Thomas, 42, who lived not far from Move. “They said, ‘If you do anything to hurt us, we’re going to kill you.’ ” The cultists said their aim was to win freedom for the nine Move members imprisoned for murder after the slaying of a policeman in a 1978 confrontation. Said Thomas: “They said they’d been through the courts but . – . . that the only way to get them out of jail was through confrontation.” Added Donald Graham, 20, who lived down the street from Move: “I heard them say if they had to leave, their house wouldn’t be the only one to go.”

Members of the Osage block club voiced their concern to Goode about nine months ago. The mayor, members reported, said he would act in due time. Recalled Thomas: “He said that a baseball game has nine innings and we were in the seventh.” Subsequently, club members could not reach Goode, and police ignored their complaints. Fed up at last, the club called a press conference to ventilate complaints and add to the pressure on the city. When the confrontation came, the club was on the verge of filing a suit to force action.

During the critical week that Goode weighed his options, he stayed in continual touch with Move through emissaries. The mayor said repeated efforts to negotiate an agreement failed. Actually, according to Bob Owens, a crisis- intervention worker, unsophisticated Move members are not really equipped to negotiate. Says Owens: “They don’t really even understand the concept of negotiation. Their attitude was that of a child: we make our demands, and we stand on them.” All hope of agreement ended Saturday when Move Spokesman Jerry Ford Africa sent the mayor an ominous message: “We are ready for you. Come and get us.”

By then police had obtained warrants charging four occupants of the Move headquarters — Frank James Africa, Conrad Hampton Africa, Ramona Africa and Theresa Brooks Africa — with parole violation, contempt of court, illegal possession of firearms, and making terroristic threats. To facilitate the execution of the warrants, authorities on Sunday cordoned off five blocks around the Move house and ordered the evacuation of 300 people by 10 that night. Last-ditch efforts to negotiate a peaceful resolution were made Sunday by Bennie Swans, director of Philadelphia’s Crisis Intervention Network. The Move group, he said, insisted they would cooperate with the authorities only after their nine comrades were released from prison. As the hours passed, the chances of an armed confrontation rose: it was common knowledge that Move had plenty of weapons and probably a store of explosives. The house at 6221 Osage was a veritable fort. Move members had dug a deep bunker in the basement; city sanitation workers obligingly hauled away the dirt. The cultists had lined the interior with the trunks of trees cut down by the city in nearby Cobbs Creek Park. Words that later seemed prophetic came blaring from the Move loudspeakers that night: “You’re going to see something you’ve never seen before.”

Around daybreak Monday, Police Commissioner Sambor deployed 150 men, including sharpshooters, bomb specialists and SWAT teams. At 5:35 a.m., Sambor roared through a bullhorn that he held arrest warrants for occupants of the house: they were given 15 min. to come out. When the deadline passed with no response but scornful taunts, police lobbed tear-gas canisters at the building and the fire department battered the roof of the house with two water cannons. A burst of gunfire came from the house, touching off a return fusillade of thousands of rounds from police lasting 90 min.

Wilson Goode heard the gunfire at his home a mile away. He and a group of advisers were tensely sipping coffee and orange juice while waiting for Leo Brooks, the field commander, to call from the scene. After the first shots came a lull, then more firing. Goode grew agitated and paced back and forth. “It sounds like machine-gun bullets,” he said, and later, “What about the children?”

Given the amount of shooting, it was amazing that nobody was seriously wounded. One bullet hit Sergeant Edward Connors in the back, but he was saved by a flak jacket from anything worse than a bad bruise. By midmorning the guns had fallen all but silent. By early afternoon every plan, gambit and technique tried by the police had failed. They had attempted to bash in the front door. They tried to drill 2-in. holes through the exterior walls in hopes of pumping in tear gas, but were driven away by gunfire from inside the Move house. They tried to break through to the cellar from an adjacent house, but were again turned back by bullets. The fire department had poured tons of water on the roof, demolishing two small bunkers but leaving the main structures intact. Around 2 p.m. Gregore Sambor and other police officials arrived at the fateful idea of attacking from the air.

The decision to bomb the Move house was the most crucial of the confrontation, and for that reason probably spawned more contradictions in subsequent explanations. Sambor told reporters he did not recall who first suggested using explosives to demolish the roof bunker, though he added that Lieut. Powell of the bomb-disposal unit “came up with the recommendation” that they “create” the kind of device that was later dropped by Powell < himself. The Philadelphia Inquirer published an impressively detailed report that for at least 18 months the police had been working up contingency assault plans and studying the Move bunker in photographic blowups. For weeks and possibly months, the paper said, police had been secretly testing various explosives, including Du Pont’s Tovex TR-2, which was later used in the attack. While Sambor stuck to his contention that tests showed no reason to suppose Tovex would cause a fire, the Inquirer cited technical lore from Du Pont stating that a detonation would produce heat of from 3,000 degrees to 7,000 degrees F, and quoted Du Pont’s insistence that the explosive was intended to be used underground for mining and quarrying, not in the open.

Did the bomb cause the fire? It certainly appeared to on television. Yet Sambor argued otherwise. He blamed the blaze on the presence of other flammable materials that could have caught fire when the bomb detonated. The police commissioner said he believed that Move members might have deliberately spread around combustible fluids like gasoline, and he even said Move members might have intentionally struck the fire that was to kill them. The inescapable peculiarity of Sambor’s argument was that it forced him to insist that police, at the time they decided to drop the bomb, had no knowledge that there was any highly flammable material about the house. But it was almost impossible to suppose the police did not know that Move kept gasoline on the roof to run a generator there, and Sambor’s own department had earlier said it had information that Move was stashing explosives in the house. Goode, though he tried to side with the Sambor argument, finally admitted that television film made it appear that the fire started with the explosion of the bomb. Had it been made clear to Goode that a Tovex bomb was to be dropped on the roof? Said Goode: “What was said to me was that they were going to use an explosive device to blow the bunker off the roof.”

The miscellany of discrepancies, plus the fact that the police consulted no outside experts on crucial questions, was enough to suggest, if nothing else, haphazard decision-making. The issue of the timing was something else again. Law-enforcement specialists elsewhere almost unanimously raised one question: Why did the Philadelphia police move so hurriedly to extreme measures against the cultists? Why not wait, talk and starve them out, which is the standard procedure in such situations?

! Philadelphia authorities say they considered a number of alternative strategies without hitting on a workable one. A crane with a wrecking ball was rejected because there was no way to get the machine in position without putting the operator in the line of fire. The police department’s vintage armored personnel carrier was thought to be vulnerable to armor-piercing slugs, which police said were being fired from the house. Delay, Sambor said, would have increased the chance that Move would place explosives in tunnels they claimed to have dug and “blow the block.” (This reason looked a bit hollow after the fire, when investigators discovered no tunnels. To explain the absence of heavier weapons in the debris of the Move house, police still theorized that members had been able in some unknown way to move back and forth to other dwellings on Osage.) Finally, police feared that waiting would give Move members a chance to escape in the darkness.

A fuller, unofficial explanation of the haste would certainly give weight to the wish, of Goode and the police, to avoid a repetition of the 1978 confrontation. During that eight-week siege, Move somehow managed to get supplies and in the end had to be forcibly removed. During that operation, a police officer was killed.

Goode was watching the siege on television in his city hall office when the helicopter swooped over the Move house and dropped the explosive satchel. Two floors above Goode, Councilman Lucien Blackwell also saw television footage of the bomb. Recounts Blackwell: “We watched as it dropped. We watched and watched, and the flames were getting larger and larger.” Alarmed at seeing no effort to extinguish the fire, Blackwell called the mayor, who told him firemen were being held off out of fear they would be shot at by Move members. Fire Commissioner William Richmond at first accepted responsibility for holding his men off for safety’s sake (“They are firemen, not infantrymen”), but Sambor later admitted that they delayed in the hope that the fire would destroy the bunker.

As the inferno gathered intensity, the tragedy took yet one more turn that was to remain wrapped in mystery. Police reported that four people — two men, a woman and a child — dashed out from the Move compound. Ramona Africa and the child Birdie were seized, but the two men, who were said to have fired weapons at the police, simply vanished. Police first said they fired back; then they denied it. By week’s end authorities had identified two of the bodies recovered from inside the house: Frank James Africa, 26, and Rhoda Harris War Africa, 30, mother of Birdie. The Philadelphia Daily News, citing unnamed police sources, insisted throughout the week that three Move members had been killed outside the house by police gunfire.

In the face of furious criticism and ridicule, Philadelphia proved through the week that it has a thick skin. It showed, as well, remarkable powers of recuperation. The community rallied with a dramatic outpouring of spirit and resources for the fire victims. Food and clothing by the ton poured into churches and collection centers. Department stores handed out vouchers that amounted to gift certificates. Supermarkets, restaurants and private citizens came forth with everything from fried chicken to pizza. One anonymous donor sent $100,000 to St. Carthage Church for its homeless “to rekindle their hopes.” Developers were already drawing up plans for reconstruction of the houses at a cost estimated at $80,000 each. While Pennsylvania legislators in Harrisburg introduced bills seeking $5 million to $10 million in state aid for the homeless, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would cover 70% of the emergency rent (up to $550 per family) for the displaced families.

For many victims of the burnout, the healing will take a long time. Most had lost not only the practical hard goods of existence but the small, irreplaceable mementos and icons of a lifetime. Inez Nichols had recently installed new carpeting and bathroom appliances in the home she and her late husband had bought 27 years ago, but knew she would miss most poignantly what had been the only existing pictures of her mother and spouse. Nadine Fosky, 22, “lost, quite simply, everything.” Clothes. School papers. Her special Buddhist chanting scroll. She anguished over it all — even over the very special scent of her house. Said she: “Someone said that a house takes on a certain familiar smell of a family over the years, and that once it’s lost it takes years to get it back.”

Edith Benson, 74, already had troubles enough, with her husband seriously ill in the hospital. The fire severely damaged her home, destroying, along with much else, a new hospital bed bought to appease her acute arthritis. Like many of the victims, she declined to blame officials. “In a way, they did the best they could. I don’t fault them. I just feel sorry for people like myself. There’s nothing else to do but pray.”


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