MOVE film shines light on dark day in history
05:00 AM, Oct 31, 2013
A groundbreaking documentary uses newspaper photos and TV news clips to tell the story of the deadly confrontation between Philadelphia police and members of the radical group MOVE in May 1985.
But journalists who produced those images almost 30 years ago have their own stories to tell about the standoff, which climaxed with a fiery explosion that took 11 lives and destroyed 61 homes. All of the victims were in a fortified house used by armed MOVE members, and five were children.
“It feels like it was five minutes ago,” says Walt Hunter, a KYW-TV reporter who broadcast live as flames spread unchecked through a West Philadelphia neighborhood.
“It’s just the insanity of what happened.”
“It was incredible,” adds Al Schell, a retired Courier-Post photographer who snapped a shot as a police helicopter flew overhead. An officer in the aircraft dropped a satchel bomb onto the bunker-reinforced roof of the MOVE house, igniting the blaze.
The grim events of that long spring day are part of Let The Fire Burn, a just-released documentary that opens at a Philadelphia theater Friday. The film details a decadelong struggle between MOVE members and Philadelphia authorities, including a 1978 clash that left a police officer dead and two firefighters injured outside a home in the city’s Powelton Village area.
The 1985 confrontation came when police sought to oust armed MOVE members from a row home in the 6200 block of Osage Avenue. Authorities, who had evacuated nearby residents one day earlier, planned to break through a wall from an adjoining home and take the MOVE members by surprise on the morning of May 13.
But the home’s defenses were too strong for police, setting in motion what Hunter calls the “sad inevitability” of a tragic outcome. The aerial assault came later that afternoon.
“A day that was supposed to end quickly and peacefully turned into a 10,000-round firefight,” he says.
The movie’s director, Jason Osder, relies heavily on archival footage photos and video clips from news coverage, public affairs programs and televised hearings. The filmmaker, a native of the Philadelphia suburb of Erdenheim, was aware of a wealth of material about MOVE, even though the confrontation remained little-known outside this area.
“I was growing up outside Philadelphia in 1985 when the fire happened. I remember being truly scared,” Osder says. He notes the children who burned to death “were my own age, living in my own town. Their parents and the police had utterly failed to protect them.”
Osder says his film “cannot bring justice to the deaths of 11 people, but an additional injustice is done when this history goes unremembered. This is too powerful and important a story to be forgotten.”
Journalists faced challenges in getting images at the scene of the confrontation.
Hunter, for instance, recalls some writers and photographers slipped into houses on the fringe of the evacuation zone.
“Our people got spotted,” says the TV newsman, who filed his reports from a few blocks away.
“We couldn’t get any closer than a couple blocks away,” says Schell. The photographer arrived in midafternoon, as tensions were building, and was surprised when the helicopter flew overhead.
Soon, Schell had climbed atop the roof of an enclosed porch, where he and other photographers recorded clouds of fire and smoke billowing over the neighborhood.
“It was unbelievable to burn down a whole block.”
Schell returned the next day, when his photographs included a shot of a body being removed from the MOVE home’s rubble.
Another photographer, Curt Hudson, came to the scene shortly before dawn the next day. He also worked for the Courier-Post, whose editors wanted a shot of the devastated area to meet a morning deadline.
“There was nothing left of the houses except for the dividing walls,” recalls Hudson, now a freelance photographer. “It looked like a World War II picture, with everything gutted and gone. Nothing was left.”
He expresses sympathy for the Philadelphia firefighters, who faced criticism for letting the flames advance.
“For any fire department, it’s a matter of pride: It’s you against the fire,” says Hudson. But he notes the fear of gunfire kept firefighters at a distance.
“They couldn’t even start on that fire because the scene wasn’t secure,” says Hudson.
“The fire burned, and it continued to burn,” says Hunter. He compares the sound of a gunfight between MOVE members and police to “what you’d hear at wartime.”
Hunter also recalls a dramatic moment when a police inspector emerged from the smoke on Osage Avenue, carrying a child in his arms. The boy was 13-year-old Birdie Africa, the only MOVE child to survive the flames. An adult member, Ramona Africa, also lived.
Birdie Africa grew up in Philadelphia’s suburbs as Michael Moses Ward. He died in September at age 41, after an apparent accidental drowning in a cruise ship’s hot tub.
Hunter left the West Philadelphia scene feeling frustration and regret.
“It’s pretty clear that with advance planning they could have at least taken the kids,” Hunter says, noting the MOVE youngsters had regularly visited a neighborhood park.
“All I could think about was the children who had perished in there,” says Hunter. “I’m not blaming the police. I’m not blaming the fire department.
“MOVE created all of this,” he says. “The (police) strategy was horribly flawed, but MOVE created the problem.”