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MOVE Fire Burdens Neighborhood, After 25 Years

Philadelphia row houses burn in May 1985, after officials dropped a bomb on the MOVE house.
Philadelphia row houses burn in May 1985, after officials dropped a bomb on the MOVE house.

For Philadelphians, May 13 marks a 25th anniversary many would rather forget. The city is still haunted by the massive police operation aimed at rousting members of the radical group MOVE from their row house compound -- an operation that led to a disastrous bombing and fire.

A Conflict That Built Over Time

The Philadelphia Police Department's assault on the MOVE compound in 1985 came after months of mounting tension.


MOVE was composed of African-Americans who practiced a cult-like back-to-nature lifestyle, took the last name of "Africa," and regularly brandished weapons.

In the months leading up to the 1985 confrontation, MOVE members fortified their West Philadelphia row house on Osage Avenue to withstand an armed assault, and tormented neighbors with profane tirades on bullhorns.

The day before the bombing, neighbors who lived next to the MOVE house were told to leave. Police were on high alert: An officer had been killed a few years earlier in a fatal confrontation with MOVE.

This time, police tried to drive the MOVE members out with tear gas -- a move that led to a gunfight.

And then, just before 5:30 p.m., police dropped a satchel of explosives onto the roof. When they detonated, flames broke out.


Officials decided to let the resulting fire burn until a fortified bunker on the roof was gone -- but the fire spread out of control, and it engulfed the entire block.

Bad News From Back Home

Thomas Mapp was on the road working as a truck driver when he heard what had happened to his block back in Philadelphia.

Mapp recalls listening to the radio for news about his neighborhood. "They said Osage burnt down, and I didn't believe it," he said. "I said, 'You can't burn no block down.' "

Connie Renfrow was one of the Osage Avenue residents who returned to her home after the bombing.

"There was nothing really there but the steps and the railing. Everything else was burnt down to the ground, all our memories," she said.

"What hurts so bad -- even 25 years later, when I go to look for something I say, 'Oh right, that got burnt up ... it burnt up in the fire.' "

One adult and a 13-year-old boy from inside the MOVE house survived. Eleven others died -- including five children.

Mapp didn't want to see the neighborhood right away.

"You see how bad it looked when they burnt it out? Ohhh. Especially when you didn't do nothing to cause it ... Then when you found out all them kids died, shoot, that's a real hard thing to take."

A blue ribbon panel concluded the police decision to bomb the house was reckless and ill-conceived.

Legacy Of A Tragic Afternoon

The nightmare has continued for the people who lived on the block. The city hired a contractor to rebuild the homes -- and residents say they've had to deal with leaks and shoddy construction.

After 15 years of problems with the houses, the city offered families $150,000 to simply pick up and leave.

For the people who still live there, it's impossible to forget the anniversary: The boarded-up houses that fill the block are a daily reminder of the deadly disaster.

One 89-year old woman who lives on the block says that when it's time to mark the anniversary, she's going to stay inside and close her door. After 25 years, she said, she's tired of talking about it.

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