HE WENT TO THE FIRE
The city was burning, and he went to the fire and got as close as he could. Something strange had just happened, something that would haunt the city for decades. A police helicopter had appeared in the sky above a West Philly rowhouse. The house was occupied by a black revolutionary group called MOVE. Seven adults and six children lived inside. The copter dropped a satchel onto the roof. The satchel contained four pounds of explosive. The explosion shook the neighborhood; people could feel it blocks away. Michael Mally gazed through his Nikon and took photos, as the flames leapt from home to home to home and the smoke rose in dark columns.
Mally was a staff photographer for the Inquirer. He knew, of course, the basic outline of MOVE—its back-to-nature philosophy, its history of confrontations with neighbors and police. The people inside the house all went by the last name of Africa, a practice begun by their founder and leader, a man born Vincent Leaphart who now called himself John Africa. Africa believed that modern technology had sapped black people of the ability to fight a racist system. In archival footage from Let the Fire Burn, Jason Osder’s astonishing 2013 documentary about the MOVE bombing, one MOVE member says, “We see John Africa the same way that people saw Jesus Christ.”
The police had tried to evict MOVE seven years earlier, in 1978, from the group’s old headquarters in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia. At the time, Mayor Frank Rizzo vowed to drag them out “by the backs of their necks”; MOVE members said that if police came in with guns, they would shoot back. The ensuing raid ended in a gunfight that killed one officer, James J. Ramp, and injured a number of other police and firefighters. In 1980, nine MOVE members were convicted of third-degree murder in Ramp’s death and sent to prison.
Now, in the past few weeks, tensions between MOVE and authorities had been rising again. At its new headquarters on the 6200 block of West Osage Avenue, a neighborhood of lower-middle-class families, most of them black, MOVE had built a rooftop bunker that commanded broad tactical views of the street; neighbors had been frightened one day when they looked up at the roof and noticed a man in a mask holding a large gun. Police had been pouring in, and Mally had spent the last few days taking photos of the growing standoff. He’d tried to get close to the house on the ground, but police barricaded the block, sealing off the neighborhood.
So the Inquirer rented a crane. On the afternoon of May 13, 1985, after police bombed the house and the fire started, Mally climbed aboard and let it elevate him 75 feet. Mally had once worked for the Los Angeles Times, where he’d shot a number of Santa Ana brushfires, but nothing like this. Strangely, there were no fire trucks pointing water hoses at the MOVE house, no firemen working furiously to put it out. The fire department and the police had made a decision to let the fire take its course. Flames whipped through brick and wood and drywall, engulfing one whole city block, then two, then three. A word leapt to Mally’s mind: Dresden. The Allied firebombing in World War II. He felt like crying.
At some point, he rejoined the other photographers on the ground. He heard shouting from one of his Inquirer colleagues, a reporter named David Lee Preston, who is now assistant city editor at the Daily News. “They just took a kid in a van—you need to take this picture!” Preston yelled. Mally rushed to a nearby van, threw his camera up against the window. He managed to take one exposure before it pulled away.
Later that day, in the paper’s darkroom, the picture emerged. It was horribly backlit, and the contrast was poor, but the figure in the foreground was unmistakable: a naked boy, seemingly eight or nine years old, sitting in the backseat of a van. There was a large white splotch on his right arm—what looked like a fresh burn—and his hair fell in dreadlocks. His mouth was open.
By then, five children had died in the fire, as well as six adults, including the boy’s mother, Rhonda Harris. The boy, known inside MOVE as Birdie Africa, was one of only two members to escape; the other was an adult woman, Ramona Africa.
Mally looked at his photo of Birdie Africa in awe and horror. The boy had just survived an unthinkable trauma—and now he was going to have to deal with the aftermath, with the burns and the bad dreams and the loss of his mother, entirely alone. How could he ever cope? How could anyone? What kind of life was this kid going to have?
AROUND THE TIME Michael Mally was shooting his soon-to-be-iconic photo of Birdie, Don Nakayama was doing his rounds at Children’s Hospital, about 30 blocks east. Usually when Nakayama did rounds, the TVs above the beds were tuned to cartoons. Today was different. In every room, the TVs were tuned to live news images of a massive fire.
It was dusk. Nakayama, the chief resident, glanced out one of the hospital’s windows and saw warm orange light rising above the city in the distance. Soon, he thought, he would be busy. Nakayama and his colleagues began to prepare for the burn victims who would surely be coming.
After a time, a small boy arrived in the ER. He smelled like soot, and 20 percent of his body had second- and third-degree burns. But he seemed to have escaped the main conflagration. More than the soot and the burns, what struck the doctors about the boy was his stunted shape. Hospital staff guessed he was nine years old; he was actually 13. (MOVE and Ramona Africa, the other survivor of the bombing, have always vigorously contested the suggestion that Birdie was malnourished. Africa says she remembers that Birdie once ran from 62nd and Osage all the way to Chester, Pennsylvania—a distance of 13 miles. “Birdie ate a strong, healthy diet,” she recalls in a phone conversation. “He ate raw food, roots, potatoes, vegetables, spinach, he ate fruit, he ate raw peanuts—the diet that MOVE was criticized for but today doctors are saying is the best diet to have.” In a letter from prison, Phil Africa writes, “I remember Birdie as the little kid with the loud clear laugh who was strong as a bull and loved eating grapes (smile). … You would have to see Birdie with his long thick healthy locks and his big glowing smile & happy face to really know the Birdie of MOVE (smile).”)
At Children’s, the doctors gave Birdie morphine, rinsed his burns in saline, applied ointments and dressings. “He had been through what most people cannot imagine,” Nakayama said in a lengthy 1988 Inquirer article about Birdie’s recovery, published before the dawn of strict medical privacy laws, when hospital workers could speak more freely. “But it was remarkable how cool he was.”
The ER was quiet; no additional children arrived. Either the fire wasn’t as bad as it looked, or Birdie was the only child who’d survived it. That night, Birdie was resting in a bed in his own room when a social worker named Toni Seidl came in to check on him. She was “horrified to find Birdie quietly watching the MOVE disaster,” according to the same article. “She changed the channel to a Popeye cartoon.”
New people entered Birdie’s life. One was Trina Dow, an art therapist at Children’s. She asked him to express himself by drawing pictures. Today, Dow remembers Birdie as a “sweet kid” and “very shy. Almost didn’t talk at all.” According to the 1988 Inquirer article, which quoted Dow, Birdie’s drawings at first were “weak and incomplete,” but over the next two weeks grew richer: “a house, trees, grass, a family. One figure … large and round-faced with a big grin, was opening the door of a house. Behind him followed a smiling boy with no arms.”The large figure appeared to be Andino Ward, a well-dressed man with a deep, smooth radio-announcer voice. Andino was Birdie’s biological father, the one who had given him his birth name, Oyewolffe Momar Puim Ward, which he found in a Khalil Gibran book. He had last seen his son 12 years earlier, when he was just shy of two; that was when Rhonda, the boy’s mother, had taken him to live with MOVE without telling Andino. (Andino and Rhonda were separated at the time, though still married, and Andino was seeing his son regularly.) Despite years of struggle, Andino had been unable to get his son back. Now he was suddenly face-to-face with a child who had only heard about him in stories.
Twelve years earlier, in 1973, Andino had gone to the MOVE house in Powelton Village for the first time. He knocked on the door, and a man in dreadlocks came out to meet him: John Africa, MOVE’s founder. Andino introduced himself and said that he understood his wife and son were living there and he wanted to talk to them. Africa said no, and explained that although Andino was Birdie’s biological father, he wasn’t really the father; MOVE was the father now. An argument escalated, and Andino ended up jumping on Africa. They were rolling around on the ground when Andino looked up and saw two guys coming out of the door. One was holding a hatchet. “I ran,” Andino recalls. “I never even looked back.”
He tried to file for divorce, to give himself a shot at formal custody, but no lawyer in the city wanted to take his case because it would mean serving papers on MOVE. Everyone was afraid.
He joined the Air Force, where he met the woman who would become his second wife, Amal. After one final failed attempt at reasoning with John Africa—Andino says he went to the house a second time and heard a bullet whiz past his head—he decided to wait the situation out. In 1980, the courts finally granted Andino a divorce. A year passed, then two, then five. He no longer knew for certain that his son was in Philadelphia; there were other MOVE compounds in other states, and members often shuttled between them. In May 1985, Andino followed the standoff on Osage Avenue on the news, unaware his son was inside the house.
THE CHILDREN WERE SCARED. Of course they were. “Obviously, everybody in that house was terrified,” Ramona Africa recalls. “Because we were being terrorized.”
The morning of the bombing, Birdie could hear the police on loudspeakers outside, reading off names, telling people to come out, to surrender. He could hear water from a fire hose blasting the house. His mother and another woman hustled the children downstairs to the garage. They arranged a series of buckets with water in them, dipped blankets in the water, and wrapped the blankets around the children’s heads. Water started rushing in, coming through the windows. Tear gas, too. The house fell into chaos. Birdie heard loud bangs—gunshots. The men were running back and forth. More bangs. Then came the bomb. The whole house shook. Birdie could hear the wood burning, crackling. The basement filled up with smoke. Everything was burning down around them.
The adults started trying to get the kids out. They opened the garage door. The kids were crying and crawling over each other, yelling, “We want to come out!”
Meanwhile, many police had moved to the back alley of the house with their guns. Conrad Africa tried to crawl out of the garage with one of the other children, Tomaso. A policeman whose vantage point overlooked the alley, William Trudel, testified that he saw an adult male MOVE member stand up, aim a rifle at police, and fire “four or five quick rounds.” In his deposition, Birdie said that Conrad was carrying no gun, only a monkey wrench, which he’d used to open the bolt on the door.
The next thing Birdie knew, he was standing in a gully flooding with water. The house was engulfed in flames. He looked above him and saw a tree on fire, pieces of wood falling on him.
A policeman in the back alley, James Berghaier, spotted Birdie from a distance of about 50 yards, several houses away. “He literally came through the fire,” Berghaier recalls. “He was barefoot. He didn’t run.” Berghaier hadn’t thought there were any children inside the MOVE house; he’d been told that the children were removed earlier.
Ramona was up on an elevated walkway. She yelled to Birdie, who was less than a story below, to come up, and put out her hand. He tried to grab it but slipped and fell. He hit his head on the ground and blacked out.
Berghaier handed his shotgun to another officer, Tommy Mellor. “I’m gonna go get the kid,” he said. Mellor watched his back, and a third officer, Mike Tursi, who would later testify that he had just seen a MOVE member come out of the house and shoot in the direction of the police, followed along with him. For the police, it was an uncertain, confusing situation. But Berghaier slogged through water and smoke to get to Birdie. He saw the boy try to get up, but then Birdie stumbled into the water.
When he first saw Berghaier, Birdie hesitated and said, “Don’t shoot me! Don’t shoot me!” Berghaier thought to himself: “Are you kidding me?” Then Birdie said that he was hungry. It only took seconds for Birdie to realize that Berghaier was no threat to him. “Can you imagine what that kid’s thought process was?” Berghaier says today.
He grabbed Birdie by his arm and dragged him away from the fire, and other officers conveyed him to a van. Inside the van, Birdie could see the smoke and the fire, the lights. He started screaming, “I want my mom! I want my mom!” And Michael Mally snapped his picture.
ANDINO WARD SPENT a lot of that first week at Children’s, learning how to care for his son’s burns. After Andino took him home, he had to debride the burns every day, twice a day, for months: removing the antibiotic and dead tissue with wet gauze, scraping this raw red stuff from his son’s body. Even with pain medication, his son screamed and screamed. There were times when Andino had to excuse himself to weep.
There was so much the boy didn’t know. He couldn’t read, couldn’t write. He didn’t know his ABCs. He didn’t know how money worked. He didn’t know what a store was or how you used it. He didn’t know that men had landed on the moon.
Andino decided that to give his son a fresh start, he needed to give him a new name. He read names out of a Bible until the boy picked one he liked: Michael. And then a middle name, Moses, after the biblical Moses, the lost boy rescued from the Nile.
Inside his home in Hatfield, Andino introduced Michael Moses Ward to television, to Sesame Street and The Three Stooges. Mike warmed to TV instantly, but there were other elements of his new life that he resisted. It took Mike a month to let Andino cut his overgrown fingernails. Then came the food war. MOVE believed cooked food was impure. Mike refused to eat the food Andino offered: chicken, rice, baked sweet potatoes. Finally, one day Andino insisted that Mike eat some cooked food. Mike said no, and Andino wrestled him to the ground. “I was dripping with sweat,” he says. “Like a battle with an alligator or something.” After an hour and a half, Mike went limp, stopped struggling. At dinner that night, he ate fried chicken, sweet potatoes, collard greens and apple pie.
In October 1985, five months after the bombing, Andino accompanied his son to a videotaped deposition taken by a city attorney as part of the city’s inquiry into the bombing. Also present at the deposition was a man who would become an important mentor to Mike over the years: David Shrager, one of Philadelphia’s most prominent trial lawyers. Shrager was representing the Wards in a case they’d brought against the city—a case that would eventually bring them a lump sum of $840,000 and monthly payments on top of that for the rest of their lives, according to the New York Times in 1991. (Andino says most of the lump sum was eaten up by attorneys’ fees, and that the annuities were never enough to make them rich. But they were enough for a decent middle-class life.) Aside from testimony he gave in 1996 in Ramona Africa’s litigation against the city, Mike had no further contact with her or MOVE. “Andino would not allow us to have any contact with Birdie,” Ramona says.
Over time, Mike started to open up. He said the MOVE children were forced to fight with one another as a means of teaching them to be self-sufficient. He feared that somehow MOVE would discover where he was living. “He was always afraid that they were going to come back and get him,” Andino says. “And I assured him that that would not happen.”
Gradually, Mike adapted to life outside the MOVE compound. Andino bought him a bicycle and a skateboard; Mike started meeting other kids. In 1987, when Mike was 15, Andino enrolled him at North Penn High in Lansdale, a school with an almost all-white student body and a black principal, and before long, with the help of teachers who worked to integrate him into that new environment, he was thriving. He started to hang out at the Boys & Girls Club of Lansdale. He took up weight lifting.
One kid from the neighborhood, Jerel Hopkins, saw Mike lifting weights one day and introduced himself. Initially, Mike seemed like a “shy, quiet kid,” Hopkins says, but as they got to know each other, Mike “came out of his shell a little bit, became one of the guys.” Mike and his friends did normal teenage stuff: drove up and down the central business strip in Lansdale, hung out at the mall. Mike’s friends and family remember him as a sharp dresser who got a haircut every week. “He was so fashionable,” says Sofia Cowan, Mike’s older sister. “Maybe it was because of the scars and things that he had.” He played on the football team—fullback and cornerback. “I think he was one of the hardest hitters you ever saw,” says Perry Sanford, Mike’s best friend at the time and for years after. “I said, ‘I think you’re doin’ that to get some of that rage out.’ He said, ‘I just love to hit. I’m a physical person.’”
Sanford says Mike only talked about MOVE occasionally: “It would just be random stuff. Mostly it would be like how he was bred to be the next leader … and he was like, ‘We just never wanted to be that. All the kids wanted to play, but it was forbidden.’
“He became his own person,” Sanford continues. “He didn’t become Birdie Africa. He was Mike Ward, the cool guy, a nice, good-looking kid. I don’t think anyone could say they had a bad story to tell about him. We were all in awe that he came out to be as cool as he was.”
AFTER GRADUATION, Mike spent a semester at a community college but decided it wasn’t for him. He attended barber school, learned to cut hair. He had a pet bird, a bright-yellow-and-cream cockatiel named Herbert. This is where the trail goes cold. We don’t know a lot about Michael Ward in his 20s and 30s. Shrager and Andino protected him from the media, giving him space to find his path, and Mike was glad to retreat, to live a life in the shadows, head either down or swiveling behind him. “He sequestered his world and made sure that everybody stayed out of it,” Andino says. “He never wanted anyone to get too close.” Says Cowan, “I kind of learned to not ask a whole lot of questions about what was going on with him.”
During the ’90s, Mike gave only one in-depth interview, a remarkable one, in 1995, to Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden, now a national magazine writer and author. By this point, Mike had become a father. He was living in a local apartment with his baby daughter, Rhonda, and his girlfriend.
Bowden recalls Mike as a polite, neatly groomed man of 23, “someone who clearly took a great deal of pride in his appearance.” Bowden says he didn’t have to do anything special to draw Mike out. “He was clearly someone who had waited a long time to talk about this,” he says.
Some of Mike’s memories were fond: He spoke with warmth and respect about Delbert Africa, who’d been beaten by police in 1978 when trying to surrender unarmed, and about Conrad Africa, who used to take the kids to the park. “He was real friendly, almost like one of the kids,” Mike said.
But Mike also spoke of physical and emotional abuse. Up until now, when people felt sorry for him, it was because of the bombing. It was because of the story that the only other person who made it out of the fire, Ramona Africa, was telling, and is still telling today to anyone who will listen: a credible story of a government unhinged, willing to use appalling force to dominate and kill. “People still want to question MOVE instead of questioning the outrageousness of what happened,” Africa says. “Murder, rape, robbery, gun smuggling, drug trafficking, being pedophiles? None of that. None of that. We weren’t accused of anything that would warrant what this government came at us with.”
Mike’s story was more personal. He made it clear to Bowden that for him, the primary trauma wasn’t the bombing but instead his childhood with MOVE. He had feared John Africa, who punished any disobedience he perceived in Mike by separating the boy from his mother: “They wouldn’t let her talk to me or let me talk to her. It was hard for both of us.” He said his mother eventually soured on MOVE and dreamed of escape—“She got real depressed”—but she was too afraid. “They threatened to kill me if she ran away,” he said. (Bowden spoke with Rhonda’s mother, Ramona Shannon, who confirmed that Rhonda had wanted to escape.) Mike also told a horrifying story of what happened one time when the children all cut their hair in defiance of John Africa’s rules. They figured that after they cut their hair, they would run away, but “we didn’t know where to go. We chickened out or something.” Mike told Bowden:
When the adults came for us and saw we had cut our hair, they didn’t say anything to us for a couple of days. Then they had one of their meetings upstairs, and they called us up. … They told us if we ran away, they would track us down and ‘cycle’ us. That was their word for killing people. Then we went back downstairs. I was sitting up on this bed, and Frank [Africa] came downstairs and started yelling at us again. Mostly, he was yelling at me. I was always keeping to myself. I didn’t like them. I guess they thought I was the strongest one or something. Anyway, Frank was yelling, and he came over and punched me in the face. I fell off the bed, and I was, like, knocked out.
Bowden thought Mike was a “very credible” source. “I find that when people have a grudge, or when people have an agenda, that they overdo it,” he says. “His experience, as he related it, seemed real to me. It didn’t seem like a rant, that he was angry and out to get them. And there was also no anger in his manner. It was more fear. And I don’t think that can be readily faked.”
When asked about Mike’s claims that the adults threatened to “cycle” the children and that Frank punched him, Ramona Africa says, “I never saw anything like that. That’s ridiculous. His mother wouldn’t have tolerated that.” As for Mike’s desire to escape, Africa says, “I mean, you don’t know any other children that are raised a certain way that people know is good for them and they don’t like it? They don’t like eating certain foods that they are pushed to eat? They don’t like being allowed to engage in certain things? … You’re talking about a child’s perception.”
TWO YEARS AFTER the Bowden interview, in 1997, Mike joined the Army. He worked for the next four years as a military videographer, shooting training videos, but it didn’t suit him. Eventually he got a job as a long-haul trucker, spending five days a week on the highways, alone with his thoughts.
Even as he tried to recede into anonymity, journalists continued to seek him out. In 2001, a documentarian named Jason Osder began looking for a way to make a film about the MOVE bombing. As an 11-year-old living in Montgomery County, he had seen the smoke rising above the skyline that day, and it stayed with him. Osder, now an assistant professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, eventually found his way to the basement of Temple University’s Paley Library, started looking through old VHS tapes, and discovered 13-year-old Mike’s October 1985 deposition. There was something foreboding about Mike’s downcast face and demeanor, and the very first frames established that he had come into this world from a place with wildly different codes and values.
“That was the moment,” Osder says, “I was like, ‘There is a film here.’”
With the blessing of Mike’s mentor, Shrager, Osder sat down with Mike in 2002. Mike was 30 now, the father of two.
In the footage, Mike could easily pass for 19. His head is shaved, and he has a thin black mustache. He wears a stylish sweater. His eyes are dark and his voice is quiet as he tells the story from the beginning, seemingly with difficulty, reluctance. “MOVE was part of my past,” he says. “I mean, I have two children. I don’t force anything on my children. I let them do what they want. They make their own decisions. Healthy decisions. But I mean, it was basically—some of it I do respect. I try not to eat a lot of … I try not to eat a lot of red meats and whatever. Things like that. I try not to eat that stuff. Some of it was good and some of it’s bad. You take what’s good and leave what’s bad.” At the end of the interview, Osder asks him if he blames the police for the bombing. “In the beginning, I mean, I did,” Mike says. “But I mean, looking at it now, I mean, they both had a part to play in it. But I think they should have gave us time to get out, maybe. Maybe my mom would be alive.”
As compelling as the interview is, none of it appears in Osder’s film. He decided he could tell a more powerful story with archival footage exclusively. In Let the Fire Burn, Osder comes back to Mike’s deposition again and again, using a child’s testimony to guide the viewer through a wilderness of competing narratives and shocking events. It works spectacularly, for a couple of reasons. One, Mike is honest. He seems guileless, incapable of lying—a valuable trait in a witness to a tragedy whose every component is highly contested by adults with motives and agendas. “I realized that as a witness, he was unassailable,” Osder says. “He might be wrong, but he’s still telling you his truth.” Two, Mike is sympathetic. He’s the person we identify with. How could we not? No one has been through what Mike has, but “everyone relates to being a kid.”
This is exactly why Philadelphians have clung to Mike and his story over the years. It would take multiple lifetimes to untangle every thread of the MOVE bombing—a knot of racial animus, class resentments, police misconduct, political cravenness and civic negligence. But we don’t have to try if we focus on Mike. Exactly one indisputably blameless person emerged from Osage Avenue that day in 1985. Jason Osder’s film only acknowledges and brings to the foreground the centrality of Mike Ward/Birdie Africa in the imagination of Philadelphia—that Mike/Birdie became not just the lasting symbol of the bombing, but the repository of an entire city’s fascination, horror and guilt.
Osder finished the movie early last year. He decided not to send a copy to Mike, thinking he’d prefer not to be disturbed. He figured Mike could attend a local showing if he was interested, and certainly he’d be welcome. A week before the film’s October theatrical opening in New York, Osder got the news.
ACCORDING TO THE autopsy report of the medical examiner of Brevard County, Florida, Mike was healthy when he died. Heart normal, arteries clear. No evidence of aneurysm, skull fracture or liver damage. Toxicology tests for evidence of drug use—amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, cannabinoids, cocaine, methadone, opiates—were all negative. Only two findings were remarkable: The lungs contained a little less than half an ounce of “blood-tinged watery fluid,” consistent with death by drowning; and the body’s blood ethanol level was .156—enough to produce disorientation, but not generally enough to be fatal. The report listed the cause of death as drowning due to acute alcohol intoxication. He was 41.
It happened on a Carnival cruise ship. September 20, 2013. Most of the Ward family was aboard: Andino, Andino’s wife Amal, Mike, Mike’s two sisters and their significant others—a big family vacation to celebrate Andino and Amal’s 30th wedding anniversary. It was the last day of the cruise; the ship was heading back to Florida from the Caribbean.
Over the past week, Andino felt, they’d all had a great time—Mike especially. He’d been divorced for years, but his daughter was living with him, and he was happy about that. He went scuba diving for the first time in his life, off the coast of Honduras. He ate and enjoyed new kinds of food, took a swim with dolphins, even spoke with his family about buying a piece of vacation property. “You could see that he was really beginning to turn the corner on some of these other demons in terms of his trust issues,” Andino says.
That last afternoon, Andino took a nap. He awoke to some commotion, assumed it was just people having fun. He drifted back to sleep. The next thing he knew, his wife was telling him to get up: “Dino, come here! Something’s happened.”
Still groggy, Andino wandered out to join his wife on their small balcony, which overlooked the pool area. He could see all these people huddled around the base of a hot tub. A pair of African-American legs was splayed out. In the room next door, Andino heard his daughter Sofia scream out: “Oh my God! Mike was in the hot tub.”
Andino ran downstairs, through the casino to the pool deck. It was all taped off. He busted through. He heard his other daughter saying, over and over, “Mike, Mike, Mike.”
Andino asked her what happened. She said that Mike had asked her boyfriend for a Cuban cigar. He said he wanted to smoke it in the hot tub. They asked if he wanted company, but Mike had said, “I just want to relax and chill by myself.”
To state the obvious here: Mike’s death doesn’t make a lot of sense. “He was intensely fit,” Andino says. “It’s just bizarre. You’re talking about four feet of water. How does that happen?” Mike’s friends say they didn’t notice any signs of depression. “It seemed like he was in a good place in general,” says Jerel Hopkins. “New house, new-construction home. Traveling around in a Beemer. Single.” Asked if he thinks there’s any chance that Mike killed himself, Perry Sanford responds immediately: “Not at all. He’s too strong of a person. He’s overcome so much.” He adds, “When I first heard it, I thought, did he slip and fall, hit his head? Anything. It has to be something. The kid’s like Superman.”
The death of the former Birdie Africa was national news, but many of the stories had a strangely impersonal quality. It turns out to be hard to say goodbye to someone you never really knew. In the New York Times, Margalit Fox wrote that Mike was a survivor of “one of the most shameful episodes in Philadelphia’s history” and quoted from the 1995 Bowden interview; NPR called Mike “an icon of the disaster,” also quoting from the Bowden piece. “I always thought Michael would outlive me,” says Berghaier, now retired from the police force and working as a janitor in a Catholic high school. He remains haunted by thoughts of the five children he was unable to save: “You do something right and you pay for it the rest of your life … I’ll get my peace when I die.”
The surviving remnant of MOVE, led by Ramona Africa, took issue with much of this coverage, releasing a flurry of letters in protest. In one, an anonymous MOVE member writes, “MOVE wasn’t the threat to Birdie. Your dying civilized system took Birdie down.” Ramona Africa tells me that Mike’s death “broke my heart. I mean, of course everybody is gonna go one day. But the familiarity with Birdie that I have, and the MOVE family had, and for him to die like that, on a cruise ship—to drown in a hot tub? You know?” Then she adds, “What you need to concentrate on is how this government tried to kill him. That’s what’s important.”
First appeared in the March, 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.