Kimberley Foskey looked dazed Tuesday as she picked through a row of donated shirts and blouses that hung from a pew at the St. Carthage Roman Catholic Church, the relief center only two blocks from her West Philadelphia neighborhood that had been accidentally reduced to ashes only a day earlier.
“I watched my mother and father work so hard to buy their house,” she sobbed. “Our pictures are gone, our personal stuff, clothes, everything. . . . I don’t believe it. I watched them work so hard for the house. I watched everybody in the block work so hard.”
On Sunday--Mother’s Day--police evacuated Foskey, 24, and others who lived around the 6200 block of Osage Avenue, a pleasant middle-class neighborhood of small but well-kept row houses and trim lawns. The residents took little with them because authorities promised they would be gone only a day, just long enough to evict members of the radical group MOVE from 6221 Osage.
But the clash between police and MOVE members turned violent. It ended with the destruction of about 60 homes in a fire triggered by a police bomb dropped on the MOVE house.
On Tuesday, area residents, most of whom owned their dwellings, filtered back under police escort to find that their dreams have gone up in smoke and that their once-charming neighborhood resembles a war zone.
Shells of brick and plaster stood Tuesday where nearly 300 persons had lived, eaten and slept only two days before. Fires still smoldered in the rubble of what had been couches, chairs, beds and tables. Trees and shrubbery were singed and blackened. Police barricades blocked auto and pedestrian traffic and a huge red crane obstructed the middle of the street, its scoop poised over the ruins of the two-story home that MOVE members turned into an armed, fortified bunker.
“I was hoping that what I saw on TV wasn’t true,” said Ann Bostic, who lived across the street from the MOVE home. “But it was.” Bostic, 65, and her 74-year-old husband, Kermit, bought their house at 6246 Osage only two years ago, after Kermit retired.
“I thought it was a nice neighborhood,” she said. “I didn’t know they (MOVE members) were there. If I had, I wouldn’t have moved in. . . . I wish my house had been on another block. No. I wish they hadn’t been on my block.”
Bostic, like others who lived in the burned area, seemed more shocked than angry over the fate of her neighborhood.
Only two weeks ago, residents called on Mayor W. Wilson Goode to do something about the MOVE members who, the neighbors said, kept a filthy, rat-ridden house, repeatedly threatened the safety of others and disturbed the peace with loud announcements on a bullhorn.
Although Bostic wanted MOVE ousted, she was baffled by the way the city did it.
“They shouldn’t have dropped a bomb,” she said, shaking her head. “There should have been another way. I’m bitter at someone, but I’m not really sure who.”
In contrast, Devore Arnold, 62, who lived around the corner from the battle zone, said authorities were clearly to blame for the tragedy. The flames barely missed the home Arnold lives in, but they lapped through a nearby house that he owns in which his daughter and granddaughter lived. Only three weeks ago, they had completed a $20,000 renovation of the now-destroyed home. All was lost, including receipts for the work, materials and new furnishings.
“It was a beautiful neighborhood. I don’t really know where I’d rather live,” Arnold said. “We have nice people. We’re all not MOVE. But the way they (the city) treated us, we all could act like MOVE. We all got a little MOVE in us if we’ve been mistreated--and we’ve been mistreated.”
Throughout the day Tuesday, small knots of rubberneckers gathered at the fringes of the police lines and rehashed the events of the night before. Most blamed authorities for the tragedy.
“People are upset,” said Carolyn Robinson, 30, a clerk at an auto parts store. “This can repeat itself. There can be a next time. They could have bulldozed them out or done something. All these people had were housing violations. If I had a housing violation and I found a whole SWAT squad in front of my home, I’d come out shooting too.”
While people in the streets were talking of blame, at St. Carthage Church they were speaking of charity. The Red Cross converted the church basement into a temporary shelter, setting up cots for about 75 adults and children left homeless by the fire. Other area residents moved in with relatives. At the church, volunteer doctors and nurses dispensed medical care and other volunteers distributed free food.
All day, thousands of pieces of used clothing arrived by truck and car from donors throughout Pennsylvania and upstate New Jersey. The chapel took on the atmosphere of a bargain basement as those who lost their homes and possessions picked through shirts, pants, blouses and dresses draped neatly over chapel pews.
“Everybody has gone out of their way,” said Sister St. Austin, one of the nuns supervising the clothing distribution. “But it’s a disaster, really. You read about things like this, but you never think it would happen to you.
“That block had such lovely people. One woman said to me, ‘I’m sorry I bothered trying to push them out.’ But how long could they go on tolerating those people?”