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.

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.