Mayor W. Wilson Goode today took responsibility for the police bombing of the headquarters of the radical group MOVE, and he pledged that the neighborhood where up to 60 homes were destroyed in the resulting fire will be rebuilt with city funds.
A bomb dropped from a police helicopter onto the headquarters of the radical group touched off a massive blaze in the middle-income neighborhood, and officers today searched for armed members who fled the siege.
A published report today said at least three bodies had been spotted in the house. But the mayor said he believed the account was “inaccurate,” and told a news conference there was no information on the whereabouts of the people who had been in the headquarters.
Waiting for Safety
Lt. Al Lewis said police and firefighters would search the MOVE house for possible victims “as soon as it is deemed safe.”
The neighborhood, which dates to the turn of the century, was “like a war zone” Monday at the climax of the siege and one of the worst fires in Philadelphia history. Residents who watched the flames chanted “assassins” and “murderers” at officers.
Damage was initially estimated at at least $5 million. About 225 people were left homeless.
One MOVE member was captured Monday, and at least one child was carried from the scene, officials said. But others eluded the more than 150 officers who had surrounded the fortified West Philadelphia house.
“We still have police in the area looking for them. We have the area surrounded and are watching for them,” said police Detective Thomas McCormick.
The Philadelphia Daily News, quoting unidentified firefighters, said officials had sighted the bodies of three adult MOVE members who died in a gun battle with police Monday. Another report from police sources said the bodies of children were in the rubble.
Goode, interviewed today on ABC-TV, called the reports inaccurate and said he did not think there were any deaths. “We’re still assessing that,” he said.
The mayor said he accepted responsibility for the “devastating” fire. He said that police would not have dropped the bomb if they could have foreseen the result, and added that he believed officers showed “tremendous restraint” during the siege.
Goode Talks to People
Goode later toured the streets where neat row houses once stood and spoke to several dozen people gathered at St. Carthage Church, which was serving as a shelter.
“We believe we owe it to you to make you whole again,” Goode said. He said it could take as long as a year, but “we will rebuild those blocks with city funds.”
Gov. Dick Thornburgh said he had offered “whatever we can provide in the way of state assistance.”
The violent confrontation with members of the back-to-nature group came after police tried to evict MOVE members from their building, which was equipped with a steel-plated rooftop bunker complete with gun slots.
Group Focus of Complaints
Residents had complained of assaults, robberies and a stench at the house. Police had obtained warrants for four MOVE members charging them with harassment, criminal conspiracy, possession of explosives, disorderly conduct and rioting, police Lt. Lewis said.
Police surrounded the MOVE house Sunday and evacuated about 200 homes in the area. On Monday morning, the MOVE group refused to leave, demanding instead that nine members imprisoned for a 1978 shoot-out that left a police officer dead be released from prison.
A 90-minute gun battle erupted after MOVE’s refusal, and police used tear gas and water cannon in an attempt to flush the members from the building.
The row house remained under siege with periodic exchanges of gunfire until 5:27 p.m. Monday, when a state police helicopter dropped a bomb on the rooftop bunker. Minutes later, a plume of smoke began rising from the roof. Soon flames were raging across the top of the house.
The bomb was not an incendiary device but an explosive designed to blow a hole in the reinforced house to give police a larger target for tear-gas canisters, police said.
Firefighters did not immediately try to put out the fire but waited for the flames to destroy the bunker. When they tried to move in, they were driven back by gunfire from four MOVE members in an alley, Goode said.
“What we have out there is war,” he said late Monday.
He said one of the four, a woman identified as Ramona Africa, was captured.
The others may have been hiding in a labyrinth of tunnels that police believe MOVE members constructed in the backyard and alley, said Leo Brooks, the city’s managing director.
One child was caught leaving the house, Goode said, adding that nothing was known of the fate of two or three other children believed to be living in the house. Authorities earlier had said as many as 10 children lived there.