Oct 3 9:00 PM

Philadelphia, the city that bombed itself

PHILADELPHIA | Gerald Renfrow clutches a weathered picture frame in his callused hands.

A slow smile stretches across his face as he taps the glass on the photo. It’s of him and his wife, Connie, taken at her high school prom “way back when.”

“Not only did the picture survive,” he said, “it demonstrates that we have survived.”

Behind Renfrow, homes sit empty and shuttered along tree-lined Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.

This isn’t any ordinary urban decay. This is ground zero for the controversial city bombing and fire on May 13, 1985, that killed 11, including five children.

Twenty-eight years ago, Philadelphia police dropped a bomb onto the roof of a house occupied by members of the radical black liberation collective MOVE. The fire jumped from roof to roof, engulfing an entire neighborhood in flames, and destroying 61 homes.

The bloody encounter has dogged the community ever since. 

It’s unthinkable, right? How could that happen?

Using only archival footage, film director Jason Osder wants to put a spotlight on the disaster’s fading imprint in his new documentary, “Let The Fire Burn,” about the hours-long standoff between MOVE and police.

Osder* was 11 years old when he watched the events unfold on television, and he’s still captivated -- and haunted by -- what happened that day.

“It’s unthinkable, right? How could that happen?” he said. “I remember being scared.”  

The film, which opened in New York on Wednesday with a national release to follow, weaves together local television news footage and the testimony of city officials, residents and law enforcement from the hearings the city held afterwards.

“I hope the film sort of leaves people with that thing that they have to wrestle with in their gut,” Osder said. “And I hope that the things people grapple with sort of stick with them.”

Created in the 1970s, MOVE members follow the teachings of the group's founder John Africa, and consider themselves his disciples. Known for their dreadlocked hair and use of the last name "Africa," members are taught to "respect and revere life" and fight injustice. The organization is wary of technology and staunch promoters of animal rights.    

The group and the Philadelphia Police Department had a hostile relationship almost since the group's inception. MOVE settled on Osage Avenue after a shootout with police at its previous headquarters in 1978. One officer was killed, and nine MOVE members went to prison for his death.

The organization fortified its new home, complete with rooftop bunker and wooden slats over the windows. Then, came the barrage of rants about the false imprisonment of their members blaring from loudspeakers.

“They blared these stadium-sized bullhorns at all hours of the day and night,” Renfrow said.

Prior to the standoff, law enforcement evacuated homes surrounding the MOVE compound. Renfrow recalled being told to only take the essentials, unaware he’d come home to ruins.

It was like being in the middle of a war.

“We could see nothing but bricks and rubble, all laid, all strewn about, just burned to a crisp,” he said, adding that his son encouraged him to take the prom photo before they left. “We were in shock. We just couldn’t believe that our houses had burned down to the ground.”

MOVE members wouldn’t let the police inside when they tried to serve arrest warrants. Before the long-time feud reached its fatal end, police bombarded the fortified home with tear gas, water canons and some 10,000 rounds of ammunition.

A source tipped off Linn Washington that the block was being evacuated. A young journalist, he rushed to the scene on his motorcycle.

“It was like being in the middle of a war,” Washington said. “At one point, I’m a block up and a block over and I started hearing things hit the ground, and I said, ‘This is hail, this is crazy; it’s a clear blue sky.’ Then, it occurred to me, ‘That was bullets falling out of the sky.’ So I put on my motorcycle helmet and just huddled down behind a car.”

The Philadelphia bombing remains one of the toughest stories he’s had to cover as a journalist, Washington said.

"A urban war, 10,000 bullets, watching a bomb drop, watching the fire destroy the lives of 250 people, and take, and actually physically take the lives of 11 others,” he said. “I don’t want to make this sound trite, but, how do you top that? I mean this was horrific."

Ramona Africa, MOVE’s spokeswoman and the only adult survivor of the blaze, was in the basement.

“We started hollering that we were coming out, that we were bringing the kids out,” she said. “The kids were hollering that we were coming out, they’re bringing us out, we want to come out.”

After escaping the fire along with 13-year-old Michael Ward, she served seven years in prison for several charges, including conspiracy and aggravated assault.

Since her release in 1992, Africa continues to be an advocate for the release of MOVE members from prison.

Sitting on a park bench near her new home a few miles from Osage Avenue, Africa runs a hand along the burn scar covering the majority of her left arm. She remains unapologetic about her beliefs.

"A lot is said about, you know, Osage residents who lost everything, meaning possessions. We lost lives that can never be replaced," she said. "We tried to tell Osage residents they didn’t want to hear what we were saying about our family, what our issue is, our family imprisoned unjustly.

"And that, you know, we’re fighting a righteous fight here. And that, you know, you should be helping us. You should be fighting along with us so that it doesn’t happen to you. They didn’t want to hear it."  

The homes on Osage Avenue have since been rebuilt, but the work was so shoddy and plagued by endless repairs that the city offered buyouts.

The Mayor’s Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Some residents took the offers, while others, like the Renfrows and Milton Williams, stayed put.

"It’s been a long 30 years. We have not been made whole," said Williams, whose only possession that survived the fire was his former wooden address decal. "No one seems to care, everyone has forgotten about us."

As residents’ worked toward rebuilding their lives, so did Michael Ward, the lone child survivor, known then as Birdie Africa when he escaped the inferno as a teen. Soft-spoken testimony from his deposition after leaving MOVE is peppered throughout the film, providing a rare glimpse into an otherwise closed-off world.

In a tragic turn of events, Ward died in late September aboard a cruise ship in what officials say was an accidental drowning. He was 41.

"We were sort of counting on Michael to sort of carry this story forward to another generation, and that’s not going to happen now," Osder said. "We’re just sort of reeling with it. It’s just tragic, there’s no real explanation. You just think of someone who had too much pain in a short life and it’s really tragic."

Ramona Africa was stunned to hear of Ward’s passing.

“It was shocking, it was saddening,” she said. “It was, like, unbelievable.”

Back on Osage Avenue, as Renfrow contemplates the future prospects of his beleaguered block, he knows one thing for certain.

"Those adults didn’t have to die," he said, "those children who were purely innocent, they didn’t have to lose their lives."

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Renfrow in this paragraph.



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