Young Birdie Africa Survives Philly's 'Move' Bombing and Is Reborn as Michael Moses Ward
12/02/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
Night after night 13-year-old Michael Moses Ward is tormented by the same nightmare: Searing flames are all around him, burning closer and closer. His extended family and friends are trapped, screaming, unable to fight their way through the blinding smoke. There is no escape.
When Michael awakens, terrified, his father and stepmother can't tell him "it's only a dream," because for Michael the inferno was real. Last May 13, when Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on the row house fortified by a bizarre "back-to-nature" cult called MOVE, Michael was one of only two occupants of the house known to have survived the explosion and fire. Eleven others, five of them children, perished while firefighters stood by for at least 45 minutes without turning on their hoses. The ensuing conflagration totally destroyed three rows of houses and left 250 people homeless.
The police had arrived in force before dawn to evict the group, whose feces-filled yard and obscenity-blasting PA system had driven the middle-class West Philadelphia neighborhood to demand that the city take action. The police say shots were exchanged and the cops were pinned down in the street. During a 12-hour siege, the house was deluged with close to a million gallons of water, police fired an estimated 10,000 rounds during the initial assault and later shattered its foundations with as many as nine explosive charges. The fire started after Police Lieut. Frank Powell leaned out of a helicopter and dropped a crude but powerful bomb on MOVE'S rooftop bunker.
"It shook the whole house up," said Michael in his videotaped testimony to an investigative commission in early November. He and the other children were huddled under wet blankets in the basement during the siege. The MOVE adults told the children to flee after the bomb was dropped, but they were too terrified to go.
Michael described how one of the adults, Conrad Hampton Africa (all MOVE members used the surname Africa) tried to carry a 9-year-old boy, Tomasa Africa, to safety, but was driven back by gunfire. "It was 'do-do-do-dodo-do,' like that, like going off, like bullets were going after each other." Police officials deny that officers fired at the house after the blaze began.
As the smoke thickened in the house, Michael saw Tomasa lying silent and still on the lap of Michael's own mother, Rhonda, who was slapping the 9 year old's back. (The charred remains of Conrad, Rhonda and Tomasa were found in the rubble the next day.) Shouting, "We're coming out! We're coming out!" Michael and two other children followed a woman named Ramona Johnson Africa into an alley. In their panic, the two other children apparently ran back into the house and died. (Ramona was arrested and later accused of criminal conspiracy and other charges.) Michael collapsed in the alley. Police officer James Berghaier, 36, dashing past flames and fallen power lines, scooped Michael up and carried him to safety as the boy pleaded not to be shot.
That night Philadelphia insurance salesman Andino Ward, watching the news on TV, saw the police take away a badly burned, naked little boy, identified as Birdie Africa, who was judged by his size to be about 9 years old. Ward, 31, had no idea that he was looking at his own son, whom his ex-wife had not let him see for a dozen years.
Andino Ward was 18 when he married Rhonda Harris, his classmate at Philadelphia's highly regarded Germantown High School. When their only child was born in December 1971, they named him Oyewolffe Momar Puim, which means Prince of Peace in Arabic. He was called Wolf for short.
Before the boy was 2, Rhonda, who had become a disciple of MOVE founder John Africa, took him to live with her in a MOVE house in Powelton Village, a neighborhood near the city's center. Andino says that he frequently tried to see his son, but that the organization members turned him away.
Following a 1978 police-MOVE confrontation in which police officer James Ramp was killed and seven officers and five firemen injured, Rhonda was jailed for disorderly conduct and making terroristic threats. Andino, then a U.S. Air Force sergeant based in England, flew home to try to locate and provide for his son. When Andino visited Rhonda in jail, she wouldn't tell him where the boy was, and she offered a warning: "She told me that if I got any closer, the order was out to kill [our son]," Ward recalls. "I couldn't take that lightly, because of the caliber of people in MOVE. I decided I'd rather have him older and a lot more screwed up, but alive." Andino gave up his efforts to get back his son, and started a new family with his present wife, Amal, 27. Their children are Sofia, 5, and Tatiana, 2.
Two days after Andino saw the little boy being carried away from the inferno on Osage Avenue, he got a call at work saying that authorities had identified Birdie as his son. Ward rushed home to pray with his wife, offering thanks to God for saving the boy. Then he grabbed his son's birth certificate and dashed to the hospital.
"The police led me to his room," Ward says. "A doctor was bending over him. The doctor looked up and said, 'Do you know who that is?' I didn't think he would know after all those years, but he said, 'It's my dad.' I bent over and gave him a big hug and kiss."
While his son was in the hospital for two weeks, Andino spent all day, every day, with him, always bringing gifts. But the reestablishment of their father-son relationship really started, Ward thinks, when he began changing the boy's bandages. The raw burns were horrible to look at. "It helped me share his pain," Ward says.
As soon as "Birdie Africa" was well enough, the Wards set about the task of giving him a new start by finding him a new name, the third in his short lifetime. "We sat down and I read him names of people from the Bible and told him all about them," says Ward, who like his wife Amal is a born-again Christian. Birdie helped pick out the name Michael Moses Ward.
But it would take more than a new name to enable Michael to begin a normal life. "Birdie" had existed almost as a wild creature in the MOVE house, not unlike the countless dogs, cats and rats that lived there. According to the philosophy of John Africa—formerly Vincent Leaphart, a grade-school dropout—eating cooked food was "impure." So the children's meals consisted solely of raw fruits and vegetables, occasionally with raw, often decaying, chicken or fish thrown in. (The adults seem mostly to have honored the rules in the breach, since Michael tells of the children being punished for stealing cooked food from their elders.) Neighbors sometimes took pity on the MOVE children and left food after seeing them pick through garbage.
Although they drove cars, listened to radios, ranted over amplifiers and brandished guns, MOVE members shunned such modern conveniences as refrigerators and toilets. Neighbors complained about the powerful stench from the group's house as rotting food mingled with human and animal waste in the backyard. MOVE men urinated from the upper-floor windows. The children, ill-clothed or naked and caked with grime, often slept on the roof. "Birdie" did not know what a toothbrush was.
Forbidden books, TV or movies, Birdie's principal entertainment was running through a nearby park or helping the MOVE men construct a bunker atop the house. He never went to school and could not read, write, count, tell time or name the days of the week.
Now Michael is treated weekly by a psychotherapist. He attends a special public school program for the learning disabled, where he seems to be adjusting well. The Wards have filed a lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia, alleging that city officials are responsible for Michael's physical and psychological injuries, first because they left him to live in the notorious MOVE house, then because they bombed him there. According to the Wards' attorney, the city has refused to pay any medical expenses for Michael since his hospitalization, although he needs continuing treatment. He cannot yet raise either of his arms completely because of scarring.
Andino quit his insurance job last spring in order to be with Michael and tutor him after school. He has not been able to find other work. Amal brings in some money from sewing at home, but they have run out of savings and are supported by friends and family. (Contributions are also being accepted by their church, the Maranantha Assembly of God, P.O. Box 656, Lansdale, Pa. 19446.) Andino and Amal have bought Michael a new stereo, a shiny new bike, a skateboard, a baseball glove—all the childhood things he was never allowed to have before. "I like to see him smile," says Andino.
Although he gets along well with his half-sisters, Michael rarely does smile. He cries even less—only twice that his father and stepmother know of: once, when his bike broke down and could not be repaired immediately; again, just before the investigating commission convened when he was asked about his mother.
"It's as if he's been trained not to register emotion," says Amal. Most often Michael's face is blank, lifeless. He seldom makes eye contact with adults other than his father. He seems to be looking at something no one else can see. But then again, he's seen things that no one else has seen.