Four decades later, embers of Philly’s MOVE bombing still smoldering | Michael Coard

A West Philly neighborhood went up in flames, taking lives and property with it. We’re still waiting for accountability

May 16, 2023 6:30 am
Firefighters battled a massive blaze that destroyed a West Philadelphia neighborhood after police firebombed the MOVE residence, killing 11 people in May 1985. — Temple University Archives Photo

Firefighters battled a massive blaze that destroyed a West Philadelphia neighborhood after police firebombed the MOVE residence, killing 11 people in May 1985 (Temple University Archives Photo/The Philadelphia Tribune).

The word “holocaust” is from the Greek words “holos” meaning “whole” and “kaustos” meaning “burnt.” Together, they mean “whole burning” or complete incineration.

On May 13, 1985, there was a complete incineration of Black men, Black women, Black children and Black homes.

But it wasn’t just the wholesale firebombing of life and property. It was also the hellish destruction of irreplaceable, emotional and spiritual mementos like Bibles, Korans, family jewelry (including wedding rings) handed down through generations, high school yearbooks, hand-drawn preschool artwork, personal diaries, sports memorabilia, sentimental photos of grandpops, grandmoms, grandchildren and pets along with many other items of cherished sentimental value.

Here are the gory details of precisely what happened on May 13, 1985.

At 5:20 p.m., a state police helicopter lifted off from the command post’s flight pad at 63rd and Walnut streets, flew a couple times over 6221 Osage Avenue, then hovered 60 feet above that two-story house in a Black residential neighborhood in West Philadelphia.

Lt. Frank Powell, chief of the city’s Bomb Disposal Unit, was holding a bag containing a bomb consisting of two sticks of Tovex TR2 with C-4 added, which was concocted by fellow unit member Police Officer William Klein. After radioing firefighters on the ground and lighting the bomb’s 45-second fuse – and, with the official approval of Mayor W. Wilson Goode and at the insistence of Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor – Powell, at 5:28 p.m., tossed the bomb onto a bunker on the roof. This was followed immediately by a thunderous explosion and then a large bright orange ball of fire that reached 7,200 degrees.

As a result, Powell, Klein, Goode, and Sambor along with Fire Commissioner William Richmond, City Managing Director Leo Brooks, and many police officers committed, in the words of Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (better known as the MOVE Commission) member attorney Charles W. Bowser, a “criminally evil” act that led to the death of 11 human beings, including five children, and the fiery demolition of 61 homes.

As recounted to me by Bowser, my mentor and author of the tell-all book, “Let The Bunker Burn,” five of the city’s most influential Black political leaders met at Goode’s home before dawn on May 13 in response to his invitation and to his warning that “I’m going to make a move on the MOVE house … [this] morning.” This was in response to what Goode said were complaints from Osage Avenue neighbors and what he also said were (alleged) arrest warrants from a judge.

But those neighbors had attempted to stop the police siege of their community as soon as they realized what was developing. In fact, as those five Black leaders watched the TV broadcast of the military-like assault unfolding with preliminary shots and tear gas fired, two of them persistently urged Goode to call it off.

In particular, City Council President Joseph Coleman, sitting at the kitchen table, told Goode the 500-strong police action was “excessive” and state Senator Hardy Williams, standing near the kitchen entrance, rationally said, “Why don’t they just back up and relax? Nobody’s going anywhere.”

More than 500 cops fired over 10,000 rounds of ammo in less than 90 minutes in a racist assault on a Black community.

Yes, it was definitely racist despite Goode being Black. It was racist because Powell, the bomb-dropping cop, was white and because Klein, the bomb-making cop, was white.

As insightfully stated by Bowser, “I know none of that would have happened in a white neighborhood and so do you.”

Tovex TR2 was a commercial explosive invented in the 1960s by DuPont as an option to dynamite for the purpose of digging trenches through rock to lay pipes. As ferociously explosive as TR2 was, Klein fired things up even more by placing a 1¼ pound block of C-4 on top of the two sticks of Tovex, despite the fact that the U.S. Army in 1979 had ended distribution of C-4 to all police departments throughout the country.

But, as documented in an Oct. 22, 1985 letter from the FBI’s Philadelphia Office, approximately 30 bricks of C-4 had been delivered to the city by the FBI and was offered as a proposed solution during discussions about an anticipated confrontation with MOVE.

The Carnage

Things went from bad to even worse.

The children, and some of the adults, were shot at or shot and killed by police as they were fleeing the flames and surrendering. The police covering the alley leading from the rear of the MOVE house had automatic weapons and shotguns. No one ever claimed MOVE had automatic weapons or shotguns at the scene, and no automatic weapons or shotguns were found among the ashes.

Police Officer William Stewart, a 28-year veteran of the department and a firearms instructor at the academy, was asked by investigators, “Did you hear gunfire at this time…,” meaning around 7:30 p.m. when people were fleeing the MOVE house from the alley in the rear. He responded, “Oh yes, automatic fire.” And when asked, “Who was firing those weapons…,” he replied, “Police officers. All the stakeout officers were running into the alley. They all had Uzi machine guns.”

Strangely, though, 16 days later, he told the MOVE Commission that he never heard any police gunfire in the alley. But Fire Department Lt. John Vaccarelli and Fireman Joseph Murray, veterans of the Vietnam War who were in the vicinity of that very same alley, said they did hear automatic gunfire when the MOVE members were running away from the flames. In fact, Vaccarelli pointed out that he saw at least three MOVE members in the yard next to the alley. This was corroborated by Police Officer James D’Ulisse.

The official report by the city’s own Medical Examiner provides proof from the autopsies of six of the 11 dead – namely Tomasa, Delicia, Phil, Netta, Tree, and Rhonda – that they did not die inside from flame fire, but died outside from gunfire.

If, as the police later testified, these victims died from the flames that exceeded 2,000 hellish degrees inside the house, why was Tomasa’s long hair still long? Why was Phil’s body not burned? Why was Netta still wearing her bright white blouse with red trim? Why were Tree’s pubic hair and blue jeans still intact?

And why did Delicia’s body and Rhonda’s body have metal fragments in them consistent with shotgun pellets as noted by an FBI ballistics expert? Even MOVE Commission Chairman William Brown stated, “I firmly believe that more people got out than Birdie and Ramona and that’s something that still nags at me. I believe that someone, someday will deliver a deathbed confession …”

The overkill police presence, the military-style assault, the malicious bombing, the nonchalant burning, and the evil shooting at fleeing victims were not just “grossly negligent” and “unconscionable” as the MOVE Commission officially noted in Findings Number 15 and 18.

The Legacy

They also were murderous because murder in Pennsylvania is defined in 18 Pa.C.S. 2502(a), (b), and © as a “criminal homicide” with malice. Criminal means illegal. Homicide means the killing of a human.

And “malice” means wanton disregard for life. It also means evil intent. Accordingly, the City of Philadelphia murdered eleven persons, including five children.

Say their names: Tomasa (7-years-old), Delicia (9-years-old), Phil (10-years-old), Netta (11-years-old), and Tree (13-years-old) along with adults CP, Conrad, Frank, John, Rhonda and Teresa.

Temple University professor and award-winning journalist, Linn Washington, who was present as an eyewitness at the scene on May 13, 1985, and who has written extensively for nearly four decades about that holocaust, recently told me in an exclusive interview, “What happened on May 13th was not a tragedy. It was an atrocity – calculated, malicious and catastrophic. It was steeped in racism that ravished MOVE members and Osage residents alike.”

Washington is right. And so was Bowser who accurately described the calculated, malicious and catastrophic attack as a “criminally evil” act.

Despite that, here we are, 38 years later, and none of the local government officials – including the racist white ones and the “Black-face-on-white supremacy” Black ones – have been held accountable in any court of law for murder, for arson, for domestic terrorism, for official oppression or for any other crimes against humanity and property.

I guess justice also went up in flames 38 years ago. And injustice is still smoldering.

This commentary was first published by the Philadelphia Tribune, a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Michael Coard
Michael Coard

Opinion contributor Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @michaelcoard.