Michael Moses Ward, Birdie Africa — rest in peace

     Michael Ward, known formerly as Birdie Africa, speaks to reporters outside the federal courthouse in Philadelphia Thursday, May 9, 1996. Ward was the only child to survive the fire. (AP Photo/H. Rumph Jr., file)

    Michael Ward, known formerly as Birdie Africa, speaks to reporters outside the federal courthouse in Philadelphia Thursday, May 9, 1996. Ward was the only child to survive the fire. (AP Photo/H. Rumph Jr., file)

    I don’t get weepy over celebrity deaths, even people I admire. John Lennon’s assassination was a tragedy, but I wasn’t personally moved. I didn’t know him.

    I didn’t know Michael Moses Ward either, but his passing hurts.

    Twenty-eight years ago, I spent several weeks hosting TV coverage of the hearings of a body called the MOVE Commission. It was set up to investigate the disastrous police assault on the radical group MOVE in West Philadelphia, an attack that killed 11 people, including five kids, and burned 61 homes.

    It was a relentless, depressing tale of bitterness, hatred and official incompetence on a scale hard to imagine. And the one redeeming story in all of it was the rescue of this 13-year-old kid who staggered out of a flaming row house and was plucked from waist-deep water by a police officer named James Berghaier.

    Birdie Africa, as he was known then, was whisked away with serious burns, and eventually returned to his father, Andino Ward, who gave him the middle name Moses because he was saved from the water.

    Months after the assault, Michael Ward gave a videotaped deposition for the commission, interviewed by its chairman, William Brown, with the family lawyer present. He told his story quietly, without affect, and then disappeared from public view.

    I was glad his father managed to keep his life private. Like so many of us who witnessed the MOVE disaster, I found it somehow comforting to picture Birdie, now Michael living somewhere, being loved, healing, building a life for himself.

    News reports over the years said he was in the area, played high school football, served in the Army, married and divorced, and worked as a long-haul trucker.

    And now we learn he died Friday on a cruise ship, found unconscious in a hot tub. An investigator for the Brevard County Medical Examiners’ Office said there were no signs of trauma, “nothing suspicious,” but that a cause of death would have to await toxicology results.

    Andino Ward told the Inquirer he was with family members on a cruise celebrating Andino’s 30th wedding anniversary, his sister’s 10th anniversary, and her in-laws’ 50th anniversary.

    The MOVE disaster killed 11 people and left scars on the lives of hundreds of others. If there was any fairness, Michael would have lived to an old age, absorbing love and accumulating so many close relationships and wonderful memories that the trauma of his youth would eventually become a distant memory, with no power over him.

    Instead, his life is over at age 41, and that hurts.

    I hope he and his family had many great years, and that he wasn’t defined or haunted by the horror of 1985.

    Michael Moses Ward, rest in peace.

    his sister’s 10th anniversary, and her in-laws’ 50th anniversaryRead more at http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20130926_Michael_Ward___Birdie_Africa___dies_in_hot_tub_on_cruise_ship_at_age_41.html#jsLWEvmxZEdzZCGh.99

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