25 years after MOVE disaster, fatal mistakes still linger

    Back in 1985, Dave Davies co-anchored WHYY’s live coverage of the special commission that investigated the disastrous confrontation between city police and MOVE. He has these reflections on the tragedy.

    This week marks the 25th anniversary of the MOVE tragedy, which killed 11 people and burned 61 West Philadelphia homes to the ground. Back in 1985, Dave Davies co-anchored WHYY’s live coverage of the special commission that investigated this confrontation between city police and a radical group. He has these reflections on the tragedy.

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    The MOVE commission hearings in the fall of 1985 offered a riveting dissection of an astonishingly inept government response to a challenging situation.

    What lingers with me after 25 years is how clearly the hearings exposed critical mistakes made during this sorry drama.

    Most of us have gotten past the MOVE disaster, and the stain it left on the city’s image has faded. But MOVE remains a cautionary tale for any mayor facing a similar crisis. He or she should know every detail of operational plans, and never assume law enforcement commanders are prepared to handle the unexpected.

    In this disaster, officials made two fatal missteps.

    The first blunder was the failure to get the MOVE children out of the house. MOVE members had turned their rowhouse into a military fortress and provoked an armed confrontation with police. The MOVE children regularly left the compound for exercise. With a little legal and operational planning, the city could have taken them into custody before police moved in.

    City officials said they’d hoped to achieve this, but failed. One of the most heart-breaking moments in the hearings was the description of how, after the block had been cleared for the assault, police actually moved their barricades to permit a MOVE Volkswagen with several children aboard to return to the compound. All but one would perish there. The cops on the scene hadn’t been told to grab the kids if they got the chance. For Mayor Wilson Goode, to permit the police to launch an operation of enormous firepower with children inside the house was unconscionable.

    The second blunder was the decision not to extinguish the small fire that appeared on the MOVE house after police dropped an explosive to try and dislodge a fortified bunker on the roof. Philadelphia was later mocked as the city that dropped a bomb on a neighborhood, but the truth is that the bomb itself didn’t hurt anyone.

    It was fire commissioner Bill Richmond – ironically the most decent man among the top commanders – who agreed to a police request to let the fire burn to destroy the bunker. The fire eventually engulfed the MOVE house and killed eleven, including five children, before destroying another 60 houses. Richmond was clearly troubled at the hearings.

    “There’s nobody in this room that’s seen more death and destruction by fire than I have,” said Richmond, choking back tears. “And to know that they died by fire, I’ll have to live with that.”

    Richmond went on to say he couldn’t extinguish the fire without exposing firefighters to gunfire.  Yet his department had already pounded the MOVE roof with a remotely-operated water cannon earlier in the day. The same approach could have doused the rooftop fire easily at no risk to firefighters.

    Richmond’s claim that he didn’t fight the fire out of concern for his firefighters has muddied this issue for 25 years. Maybe he wasn’t thinking clearly that terrible day. Maybe he simply felt the police were in charge. But the decision to let the fire burn left five kids dead and 250 people homeless.

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