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MOVE house is bombed; blaze involves 60 homes | 1985

Fire one of city’s worst ever

Philadelphia firefighters pour water on the burning homes on the south side of Pine St. late on May 13, 1985. The entire south side of Pine Street and all the 6200 block of Osage Avenue was destroyed.
Philadelphia firefighters pour water on the burning homes on the south side of Pine St. late on May 13, 1985. The entire south side of Pine Street and all the 6200 block of Osage Avenue was destroyed.Read more

The story appeared in The Inquirer on May 14, 1985.

More than 60 buildings were destroyed or damaged in West Philadelphia yesterday as one of the worst residential blazes in the city’s history burned out of control.

Residents of closely packed rowhouses on Osage Avenue and Pine and 62d Streets, evacuated before a police shootout yesterday morning, watched in helpless horror and anger as flames marched through their homes.

Mayor Goode early this morning estimated the damage at $5 million, and said he would apply for emergency disaster funds from the state to help rebuild the three-block area.

The mayor said that the city would provide temporary shelter for residents, and that a team of city officials would be on the scene this morning to begin processing claims for the damages.

The American Red Cross said it would operate a disaster service center at St. Carthage Church at 63d and Cedar Streets.

Firefighters did not begin to battle the blaze for more than an hour as it took hold, first in the MOVE compound and then in adjoining houses. Goode blamed the slow response by firefighters on the armed MOVE members who had escaped from the surrounded house into a nearby alley.

Six police officers and one firefighter were treated for minor injuries during the blaze.

More than five dozen houses were burning or in imminent danger by 10 p.m. as the fire roared from building to building, burning houses, trees and utility poles while Philadelphia watched on television.

The task of controlling the fire was complicated by the distance from which more than 150 firefighters manned 37 pieces of equipment. Fire Commissioner William Richmond said firefighters “backed down” after hearing shots fired shortly after the blaze started.

Firefighters were escorted by heavily armed police as they slowly set up hoses and moved trucks near the burning homes.

“We moved out of our houses voluntarily for them to be destroyed.”

Janice Walker, West Philadelphia resident

Water pressure was reduced, and more equipment and personnel were needed, to fight an unrelated four-alarm fire that broke out at about 10 p.m. at a two-story warehouse and a one-story former supermarket in the Woodland Village Plaza Shopping Center at 61st and Woodland Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia, about 36 blocks from the site of the MOVE conflagration.

In West Philadelphia yesterday, angry residents milled outside police barricades, blaming Mayor Goode and police for the fire that was destroying their neighborhood.

“This just isn’t necessary,” cried Janice Walker, who lived two houses away from the burning MOVE house. “I’m sure my house is just destroyed. We want to know who’s going to pay for it. We’ve been there 20 years . . . all of my family’s aspirations are tied up in that house.

“It’s not fair for all the neighborhood to be destroyed . . . ‚” she said. ’’I blame everybody. We moved out of our houses voluntarily for them to be destroyed.”

The fire at the MOVE house started shortly after 5:27 p.m., when a heavy explosive contained in a satchel was dropped out of a state police helicopter onto the roof of the MOVE compound at 6221 Osage Avenue.

The satchel charge tore a hole in the roof and destroyed a reinforced steel and wood bunker that MOVE members had constructed in recent weeks.

The fire leaped from the MOVE house on the north side of the 6200 block Osage Avenue to the adjoining houses and then to houses on the south side of Osage. It crept north to 6200 block of Pine Street and east to 400 block of South 62d Street.

A first alarm was sounded at 6:54 p.m., a second at 7:25. The third alarm was sounded at 8:02, a fourth at 8:27, and a fifth at 8:45. The fire mounted to a final, sixth alarm at 9:35. It was finally declared under control at 11:41 p.m.

More than 500 people — sightseers and evacuees — gathered on corners as the floodlights from fire equipment stationed on Cobbs Creek Parkway, one block to the west, gave an eerie illumination to the night.

One of them was Joseph King, a Democratic committeeman in the sixth district of the 46th Ward, who said the neighbors he had spoken with questioned the police action that started the fire.

“Everyone I’ve talked to appreciates the patience the police have shown, but that move dropping the bomb, we despise that,” King said. “You’ve got a 6,000-member police force, and you can’t get 12 people out of a house. The way they did it is wrong.”

The blaze, turning the night sky orange over West Philadelphia, was one of the the worst residential fires in the city’s modern history.

Fifty-four dwellings were destroyed on Jan. 1, 1963, by a fire at the Fretz Building, 10th and Diamond Streets. That fire was equal to a 13-alarm fire, and also consumed 41 other buildings, along with towers, boxcars and other equipment of the Reading Railroad.

In another disastrous residential fire, of eight alarms, 122 families were left homeless when fire swept through about 30 buildings between Ridge and Columbia Avenues at 23d Street on Feb. 8, 1942.

Yesterday, West Philadelphia residents were confused and angry as they watched their homes turned into smoking rubble.

“All they said was evacuate and we’ll (residents) be back in later,” said Gary Winfield, who lived next door to the MOVE house. “Now who’s going to give me restitution? . . . Somebody’s going to give me something or they’ll have MOVE II on their hands.

"All I have to say for the neighbors is, I hope you're satisfied."

Goode said at an evening news conference, in an estimate that quickly proved to be optimistic, that “we may very lose 14 to 16 homes . . . we’re very saddened by that. We’re also very saddened by the fact that there may be loss of life.”

And he defended the police action, although he said, “I’m aware that there is a lot of frustration out there. There is no perfect way to bring this thing to a conclusion . . . we will do our best.”

Goode said the city would examine claims for damage because of the fire.

The mayor said that the city law department's special claims unit would investigate the damage, promising the agency "will go around and make sure that those persons who feel they have in fact been damaged in any way can file their claims appropriately."

But the mayor also said that while the city will consider such payments, ’'we do know that there are some homeowner policies that cover things like this. So we would be pursuing both those things with those persons who feel that they had property damage there.”

Also contributing to this article were staff writers Timothy Dwyer, Richard Heidorn, Mark Jaffe, Larry Lewis, Susan Levine, Ellen O’Brien, David Lee Preston, William W. Sutton Jr. and Mark Wagenveld