Today is May 13, 2020. For me, it is another one of those “Do you remember where you were 35 years ago today?”
It can be said in one word. MOVE. Little did I know I would be an eyewitness to history.
I will never forget Mother’s Day 1985 or Monday, May 13, 1985. What began with a Sunday “tip” and report of “police action” to inside reporter Kate Prohaska turned into one of the worst days in Philadelphia history -- the day Philadelphia Police dropped a bomb on a row house at 6221 Osage Ave. in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia. If you get time, Google it. There is a plethora of stories. Today’s Inquirer has an editorial and “Letter to the Editor.”
By day’s end, 11 people were dead -- six adults and five children -- 61 homes destroyed and hundreds were displaced.
I view that day as a “Material Event” in my life. Because I worked weekends at KYW Newsradio, I normally had Mondays off. For some reason, when I left home for my early morning jog, I took both my “beeper” (remember those) and a handy-talkie (2-way radio). Cell phones weighed about five or six pounds so the one- or two-pound handy-talkie was the way to go. It allowed me to hear what was happening near the scene. About three miles into my jog, I heard the assistant news director say, “Call Litwin and get him there.” I quickly responded to the request and headed home as fast as I could. I didn’t even shower. I just threw clothes on and followed instructions to meet up with KYW’s Tony Hanson at 62nd and Walnut. KYW’s Richard Maloney was already at the scene stationed in Cobbs Creek Park and Jay Lloyd would join him. That was between 10 and 11 a.m. Our editors were Bill Roswell and Bob Kotowski. Tony and I took our orders from the editors and management including the best “bosses” I ever had -- Nelson Cohen, Ed Belkin and Bill Toffel. We were told to stay together -- Maloney and Lloyd would cover the park area.
Shortly after noon, one of Tony’s reliable City Hall sources tipped him off that something was going to happen “soon.” In fact, as I was about to do a “live shot” for sister station WBZ in Boston, Tony gave me the information, which I used. We could not get a confirmation or information from a second reliable source until sometime soon after 3 p.m. That’s when the late Novella Williams -- a trusted activist and civic leader and Mayor Wilson Goode confidant -- sought us out to tell us (off-the-record) “the Mayor is going to do ‘something’ soon.” Because Westinghouse Broadcasting (KYW’s owners) required three confirmed sources, we could not utter the words bomb or device on the air. In fact, no news outlet did, either.
That “something” started before 5 p.m. when one of the (police) helicopters appeared to dip down closer to homes on the narrow Osage Avenue. Tony and I were now at 62nd and Pine although we snuck up to Osage Avenue where police were congregating for “something.”
We later learned it contained Tovex and/or C-4. It appeared to land in or near a 55 pound drum on the roof, which may have contained an accelerant. As I was doing a KYW live shot at about 5:32, a huge explosion knocked me off my feet. The next words out of my mouth were, “Holy S _ _ _” at which time anchor (the late) Harry Johnson threw it to Maloney and Lloyd.
By now, I was on the ground with Tony H. down the street working his sources and trying to get as close as he could. We both witnessed gunfire on Osage Avenue, which sent firefighters closest to 62nd Street retreating for safety. I got behind the Channel 3 news van on 62nd Street and began using the van’s mobile phone for future reports as my handy-talkie batteries had died.
Summing up that awful day, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the two survivors from that day -- activist Ramona Africa and 13-year-old Birdie Africa (later going by the name Michael Moses Ward). He passed on Sept. 27, 2013. Birdie being driven away in a middle seat an unmarked car is indelible in my mind.
Among my lasting memories: About 6:15 or so, Tony and I were on Cobbs Creek Parkway when an older African-American woman, standing at her front door looking petrified, asked if we needed anything. She invited us in for water and use of her phone. On a living room wall was a huge portrait of her late husband, a retired Philadelphia Police Officer in his dress uniform. Little did we know the fire would soon destroy the homes on that block. But, for some reason, we offered to take the portrait down just in case. The much-taller Tony was able to do it and we carried it across to the park. An hour later the house was gone, but that beautiful woman and the portrait were safe.
One other memory -- more recent. On Feb. 24, 2015, I was a panel member (along with Maloney, the Inquirer’s Bill Marimow and a couple of others) at Philadelphia Community College’s Law and Society Week discussion and unveiling of a MOVE documentary. That is where audience member Ramona Africa challenged us and particularly me about media coverage. We had a robust “conversation” and agreed to disagree. One point we agreed on was that if we had two-way communication back in the day, maybe, just maybe, the result would have been different. I vividly recall telling Ms. Africa and the audience May 13, 1985 is often top-of-mind. We continued our discussion well after the panel presentation ended, shook hands and wished each other well.
With that, I urge you -- in your spare time -- to catch up on the MOVE tragedy by reading today’s commentaries and former Mayor Goode’s opinion piece via https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/10/when-i-was-mayor-philadelphia-bombed-civilians-its-time-for-the-city-to-apologise .
Thank you for allowing me to share this cathartic reminiscence on this 35th commemoration of an event that should never have happened. As you can tell, it is forever in my mind thanks -- in no small way -- to my many conversations with former Action News producer Bob Timms. May you all be SAFE and HEALTHY.