A fire that began when police dropped a bomb on the roof of an old row house in an attempt to dislodge members of a radical group barricaded inside spread rapidly to as many as 60 other dwellings in West Philadelphia Monday night before being brought under control.
The house was occupied by the MOVE anti-technology cult. Two men, a woman and a child fled from the house after it burst into flame moments after the bombing, according to police. They said one of the men began shooting, wounding one nearby officer, before disappearing in the thick smoke gushing from the building.
The woman and the child were taken into custody and were immediately hospitalized for treatment of burns. Both were said to be in stable condition a few hours later.
The officer, protected by body armor, was reported in good condition.
But the fate of four other adults and at least five other children believed to have been inside the house at the time of the bombing was not known.
“What we have out there is war,” Mayor W. Wilson Goode said. “We cannot permit under any circumstances to allow one small group to hold this city hostage. . . . It (the raid) had to be done.”
Philadelphia Fire Commissioner William Richmond said the fire was brought under control at 11:40 p.m.
Earlier, Richman and two other city officials held a press conference three blocks from the scene, during which Richman explained that his men were able to fight the blaze “only on the edges” because of sporadic gunfire that continued to erupt in the vicinity of the MOVE house.
Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor said the bomb had been dropped at his order, and insisted that it was “necessary,” because “it was impossible to handle the situation any other way.”
He pointed out that thousands of rounds of ammunition had been fired--by both sides--since the confrontation began Monday morning, tear gas had been tried repeatedly, and a water cannon had been used repeatedly in an effort to knock out the railroad-tie-and-steel-plate pillbox erected by MOVE members on top of the house.
“Nothing worked,” he said. “They were using the pillbox to shoot at police officers.
“If you were in a fire fight and the opposition held the higher ground, what would you do?”
‘Easy to Second-Guess’
“It’s easy to second-guess any action,” he said. “We did not intend to set the building on fire. What we dropped was a square explosive charge, produced by the police bomb squad, in an effort to force the people out of that pillbox.
“I’m told, now, that the fire may have resulted from several cans of gasoline that MOVE had placed on the roof--to be poured on officers if they tried to rush the building.”
Philadelphia Managing Director Leo Brooks said members of the city legal staff would come to the area today to begin the work of compensating people whose property was destroyed by the fire.
Police had begun blocking off the row house--evacuating neighbors and barring spectators from the area--Sunday night, after obtaining arrest warrants for four of the adults believed to be living there.
Warrants Obtained Friday
The warrants, obtained last Friday, accuse MOVE members--who have harangued their neighbors through bullhorns--of criminal conspiracy, possession of explosives, disorderly conduct, rioting and harassment.
Police Lt. Al Lewis said neighbors have also complained of assaults, robberies, and “a stench” from the house, where MOVE carries out an anti-technological philosophy that discourages conventions, such as bathing, and makes pets of rats and other animals commonly classed as vermin.
MOVE members had said they would not surrender until nine members of their group who were convicted of murder after a similar confrontation with Philadelphia police in 1978 were freed from prison.
Lewis said Monday morning’s gunfire began at 5:50 a.m., and came from the MOVE residence, when Police Commissioner Sambor read an eviction notice.
Police, he said, responded with “controlled fire"--which continued for about two hours, during which several thousand shots were fired.
Members of the group still refused to leave, and police used a water cannon against the building.
Another half-dozen shots rang out six hours later. One officer was wounded in that exchange. Another suffered a dislocated shoulder, and a third received emergency treatment for hyperventilation.
Sporadic gunfire continued from the pillbox on the roof the building, and an attempt to demolish the pillbox with a heavy water cannon proved ineffective, though it partly demolished the front of the building.
Tear Gas Attacks
Repeated tear gas attacks also appeared to fail, and police said the bomb was dropped on the roof from a helicopter in an attempt to make a hole through which more tear gas could be lobbed into the building.
Meanwhile, in the southeastern Pennsylvania town of Chester, police raided another MOVE house after ordering occupants to leave.
Five children and one woman were found inside when officers finally smashed through the doors. All were taken to a nearby hospital, where their condition was not immediately known.
Community opinion appeared to be divided over the Philadelphia action.
Louise James, who rented the house to MOVE, was highly critical.
“I want the mayor of Philadelphia to stand in my face and justify his position,” she said. “I told him over and over again that MOVE would not come out of that house, and Wilson Goode knows it . . . “
But Clifford Bond, one of the neighbors who has been calling upon the city to act against MOVE, said authorities had no choice.
“I’m . . . upset that it comes down to this,” he said, “but something had to be done. We couldn’t live like that.” A few minutes later, Bond was informed that his home had been destroyed by the spreading fire.
Novella Williams, president of the “Citizens for Progress” human rights group, said she tried to negotiate with MOVE Sunday afternoon, talking with three women--Myra, Theresa and Ramona (all of whom use the family name of “Africa,” as do all MOVE members)--on the front steps of the row house. She said the women were affable and “non-threatening,” but showed no signs of a willingness to leave the building.
“They (MOVE) have as much right to live in their home as their neighbors,” she said
‘Havn’t Murdered Anyone’
“MOVE people haven’t murdered anyone or hurt anyone,” added Frances Drake, an official of the West Philadelphia Neighborhood Youth Achievement Program.
And Brian Dennis, a Red Cross paramedic-social worker, said he was hoping that people driven from their homes by the fire would make use of the shelter set up for evacuees rather than converging in the streets.
“The people I talked to are very hostile, very angry with the city,” he said. “Right now I think the police are fearing riot situations.”
The radical MOVE group traces its origins to the waning years of the counterculture era. Founded in 1972 by Vincent Leaphart, a black third-grade dropout, and Donald Glassey, a white college teacher with a master’s degree in social work, the group originally was known as the Community Action Movement.
Back to Nature
Members espouse a back-to-nature philosophy and say they shun modern conveniences such as electricity. The group has demonstrated against a wide variety of people and issues, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Communist Party and the Quakers.
In the late 1970s, MOVE had several run-ins with Philadelphia police and city officials. Police blockaded the group’s house in March, 1978, in a move designed to force 11 MOVE members who had been charged with weapons offenses to surrender. The siege lasted 50 days, then the standoff resumed when MOVE members refused to adhere to a peace agreement. Three months later, on Aug. 8, 1978, several hundred police officers and firefighters converged on the house to enforce the court-ordered arrest of the group’s members.
In the fierce gunbattle that ensued, one police officer was killed and four other officers, four firefighters and one MOVE member were wounded. Nine MOVE members were convicted in 1980 in the officer’s death.
Bob Perkins, a West Philadelphia resident long active in community affairs, echoed Dennis’s concern over the possibility of rioting.
“You know,” he said, “people are really angry. They want to hit back at someone, at anyone.
“This is supposed to be the City of Brotherly Love . . . and it’s a hellhole.”