PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Mayor John F. Street testified the city had a “moral obligation” to help families who lost homes in the MOVE fire, but he couldn’t answer key questions about its efforts to repair damage from one of the sorriest events in city history.
On May 13, 1985, police trying to evict armed members of the militant cult MOVE dropped explosive from a helicopter, then ordered firefighters to keep their distance. The 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. The homes were defective, and the city spent millions of dollars on failed repairs.
After Street became mayor in 2000, he suspended construction, declared the buildings too dangerous to live in and offered the remaining families a $150,000 buyout. Most took it, but 24 families went to court.
Testifying Thursday, Street said he didn’t think it was possible to repair the houses “in any fiscally responsible way.”
He said he $150,000 buyout was fair, but pressed by the families’ attorney, Adrian Moody, Street couldn’t say 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.
U.S. District Judge Clarence C. Newcomer rebuked Street over his failure to answer questions.
“Has there ever been an event in the city of Philadelphia as traumatic as the events at Osage Avenue?” Newcomer asked.
Street, who was a city councilman at the time of the MOVE disaster, 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 handled.
“In the course of a given week, I look at 10 issues as complicated as this issue,” he said.
The 24 families are seeking between $250,000 and $300,000 apiece for their homes, plus damages for what they claim was unfair pressure to take the buyout. A letter sent by Street indicated the city would seize homes of those who rejected the offer.
The trial, which is expected to continue into next week, is the first civil lawsuit related to the MOVE bombing since 1996. In that case, 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.
Members of the MOVE cult adopted the surname Africa, ate raw food, espoused equality with animals and preached against technology. Neighbors complained that they shouted from bullhorns late into the night, were confrontational and unsanitary, and jogged on people’s roofs.
In 1978, in a different West Philadelphia neighborhood, an officer was killed when police tried to evict the group and nine MOVE members were convicted of murder.