Birdie Africa: The Lost Boy

Almost 30 years ago, 13-year-old Birdie Africa became the face of the MOVE disaster, the only child to survive the bombing of that infamous Osage Avenue house. Last Fall he drowned in a cruise-ship hot tub, as alone and mysterious in death as he was in the city’s greatest tragedy.

Left: Mike some 10 years after the Osage Avenue disaster, still sporting the scars from his ordeal.  Right: Birdie, renamed Mike, looking happy and healthy just shy of 16 years old, May 1988.

Left: Mike some 10 years after the Osage Avenue disaster, still sporting the scars from his ordeal. Paul Hu KRT/Newscom
Right: Birdie, renamed Mike, looking happy and healthy just shy of 16 years old, May 1988. Jim Preston/Philadelphia Inquirer

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.