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I'm From Philly. 30 Years Later, I'm Still Trying To Make Sense Of The MOVE Bombing

Philadelphia native Gene Demby was 4 years old when city police dropped a bomb on a house of black activists in his hometown.
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Everyone on the scene heard the explosion. Television viewers at home saw the moment of impact on TV, and they also saw that the rooftop bunker — the target the bomb was apparently meant to neutralize — was still standing.

But the roof had caught fire, and smoke began billowing over the tops of the row houses. The fire seemed to be getting bigger, but the firefighters were ordered by Sambor, the police commissioner, to stand down. ("I communicated ... that I would like to let the fire burn," he later told the city commission.)

Within 45 minutes, three more homes on the block were on fire, too. Then the roof of the MOVE house buckled under the flames and collapsed. By the time the firefighters finally began fighting the fire in earnest, it was too late. Within 90 minutes, the entire north side of Osage Avenue was on fire.

Philadelphia's streets are famously narrow, making it easy for the fire to leap from burning trees on the north side to more homes on the south side. Then the flames spilled over to the homes behind 6221 Osage, to Pine Street. By evening, three rows of homes were completely on fire, a conflagration so large that the flames could be seen from planes landing at Philadelphia International Airport, more than 6 miles away. Smoke could be seen from across the city.

"Drop a bomb on a residential area? I never in my life heard of that," a neighborhood resident told a reporter that night. "It's like Vietnam."

By the time the fire was finally under control, a little before midnight, 61 houses on that tidy block had been completely destroyed. Two hundred fifty people were suddenly, shockingly, without homes. It was the worst residential fire in the city's history.

In the end, 11 people died in the fire. Five of them were children. It took weeks before the police were able to identify their remains.
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