As Memorial Day gets closer, some New Jersey beaches are testing “capacity management” to prepare. Folks turned out at the Shore yesterday as beaches have been newly reopened with restrictions during the pandemic. But if you want to stay away from the Shore and you rented a beach house, you might not be able to get your deposit back.
Also, this past week was the 35th anniversary of the 1985 MOVE bombing by Philadelphia police, which killed 11 people. Veteran reporter David Lee Preston was there, and we asked him what it was like to cover it.
Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with David Lee Preston about the 1985 MOVE bombing that destroyed a block on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia.
The day of the bombing in 1985, what did you hear about? What did you know before you went to the scene?
The previous night, I had interviewed a community activist named Novella Williams for a story that ran the morning of the tragedy. She told me that she was one of five negotiators — including Michael Nutter, at the time an aide to City Councilmember Angel Ortiz — trying to head off a confrontation between police and MOVE. She said she had reported to Mayor Goode twice by phone that the group’s message was the only way to prevent a confrontation was to release the nine MOVE members imprisoned on murder charges for the 1978 shootout in which a cop was killed. She told me Goode’s response was that something had to be done and that a violent confrontation appeared inevitable. On the day of the bombing, my colleague Thomas J. Gibbons Jr. learned a half hour ahead of time that the cops planned to bomb the house, and he advised me of it as I stood on the street. It was the worst feeling in the world. I wanted to tell someone in charge there must be some other solution, but I was powerless, with only a reporter’s notebook and the trepidation of impending doom.
When you arrived on the block on Osage Avenue, can you describe what you remember? What did it look like? What did it feel like?
We weren’t permitted onto Osage Avenue after the bombing. I remember running through the alleyways with photographers Larry Price and Ed Hille to try to get a better look. I was on Cobbs Creek Parkway when I saw the cops bring out Birdie Africa.
I want to emphasize that I was not the only reporter on the scene who still works for us. Andrew Maykuth, for one, was out there too.
I will add that the performance by Channel 10 reporter Harvey Clark, broadcasting for hours from a sound truck near the scene, remains the single most impressive example of grace under pressure I have witnessed in journalism.
What has stayed with you from that day as more was learned about what happened?
As the fire spread, and it was shown live on TV around the world in the days before CNN — and news organizations even arrived from Europe to chronicle the catastrophe — I will never forget returning to our newsroom and hearing some colleagues say the city had no choice. Most of The Inquirer reporting staff was involved in the story, for which we were finalists for a Pulitzer, yet it’s astonishing to think that anyone could have watched that conflagration and had that reaction. Finally, I suppose my biggest contribution to the coverage was in alerting photographer Michael Mally to the burned boy being brought out of the house and into a waiting police van. Mally’s photo of Birdie Africa became a memorable image from the tragedy.
In your reporting and observations, how has the bombing impacted the city of Philadelphia over the years?
The catastrophe left a permanent scar, yet it remains unclear whether anything was learned. Even many younger Philadelphians have never heard about it. It should be required in the city schools’ curriculum. Chalk it up to human nature, but most tour guides would sooner take someone to the Rocky statue than to Osage Avenue.
This was your last week at the Inquirer after four decades in the field. What made you want to become a journalist?
My parents were Holocaust survivors, and I grew up asking why other kids had grandparents. This was my earliest motivation. Then in 1965, when I was 10 years old, a stranger named George Kennedy came to our house in Wilmington and interviewed my father, who had just returned from testifying at the Auschwitz war crimes trials in Frankfurt. The next morning, a story appeared in the Wilmington paper about my father with his photo and the byline of George Kennedy. Many years later, as fate would have it, George Kennedy was my journalism professor at the University of Missouri, and we are still friends.
What are a few pieces of work from your career that you’re proud of and why?
My three cover stories about my parents in the old Inquirer Sunday magazine, on Mother’s Day 1983, Mother’s Day 1995, and a 1985 article about my father that was a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer in feature writing. I plan to devote myself now to my work on my parents, and anyone interested is invited to follow me and join my mailing list at davidleepreston.com.
Follow David Lee Preston on Twitter at @DavidLeePreston.
This photo jumped out at me instantly. I love the angles and shadows you’ve captured here. Thanks for sharing, @paper_strawz!
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“As a vegan, I can’t say I would enjoy feasting on the abundance of eggs featured in this article. But kudos to Timi Bauscher for her ingenuity in sparing 80,000+ hens from euthanesia. Please take good care of these hens. They’re providing happiness to many folks & deserve humane living conditions. Meanwhile, be safe everyone!” — tim smith, on How a Berks County woman used Facebook to rescue an egg farmer’s 80,000 hens amid the coronavirus.