PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Mayor John F. Street spent 90 uncomfortable minutes before a federal jury Thursday explaining how the city has treated families who lost their homes when police dropped a bomb on their neighborhood during a battle with the militant group MOVE.
The explosion, on May 13, 1985, is remembered as one of the sorriest moments in city history.
Police trying to evict armed members of the cult dropped the explosive from a helicopter, then ordered firefighters to keep their distance as flames killed six adults and five children inside the MOVE compound and consumed 61 adjacent homes.
Embarrassed city officials promised to rebuild, but the project lurched from scandal to scandal.
A contractor went to prison. The new houses were defective. Cracks opened in the walls. Electrical systems failed. The city spent millions of dollars on repairs, but couldn’t solve the problems.
After Street became mayor in 2000, he suspended the repair work in mid-construction, declared the buildings on Osage Avenue too dangerous to live in and offered the remaining families a $150,000 buyout.
Most took it. The remaining 24 families went to court.
Testifying Thursday, Street said he believed the city had a “moral obligation” to help the families, but didn’t think it was possible to repair the houses “in any fiscally responsible way.”
“I had made a decision that the houses were dangerous, and the residents shouldn’t be living there,” he said.
He added that $150,000 was easily three or four times the value of other homes in the neighborhood.
“I thought it was fair. I thought it was more than fair,” Street said.
But, pressed by the families’ attorney, Adrian Moody, Street seemed unable to answer the most basic of questions about how he reached that decision.
Street said he didn’t know how much it would have cost to do further repairs, or how much the city had spent trying to fix the buildings so far. When he was shown city documents and letters he had signed, he claimed he had no memory of them.
Several times, he said he was unaware the city had actually constructed new homes for the families after the old ones burned.
His inability or unwillingness to answer questions elicited moans from homeowners packed into the courtroom, and finally prompted an angry rebuke from U.S. District Judge Clarence C. Newcomer.
“Has there ever been an event in the city of Philadelphia as traumatic as the events at Osage Avenue?” Newcomer asked.
Street, a city councilman for 20 years before he became mayor, sat quietly for several moments before responding, “This is right up there.”
“Then can you explain why you don’t have a better recollection of the questions that are being asked of you?” Newcomer said.
Street bristled, faced the judge, and in a raised voice responded that, as the mayor of the nation’s fifth largest city, he couldn’t be expected to remember the details of each city problem he dealt with.
“In the course of a given week, I look at 10 issues as complicated as this issue,” he said.
The trial is expected to last several days.
The 24 families involved in the suit are seeking between $250,000 and $300,000 apiece for their homes, plus additional damages for what they claim was an unfair attempt by the city to pressure them into taking the buyout.
Street sent the families a letter saying that if they didn’t accept the offer, the city would seize the homes by imminent domain. His decision to halt repair work also left the families living in unfinished buildings with missing doors and walls.
“This is a disaster. It really is,” Moody said in an interview. “To me, it is up to the jury to make a decision on this now. I think closure is necessary for all concerned.”
The trial is the first civil suit related to the MOVE bombing since 1996, when a jury ordered the city to pay $1.5 million to a MOVE member who survived the bombing and the families of the people who died.