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May 13, 1985: Philly Bombs Literally!

Philadelphia loves to brag about it’s ‘Firsts,’ citing such notable things as the nation’s first capital (1774), America’s first zoo (1874) and the birthplace of the world’s first digital computer ENIAC (1946).

There is one ‘First’ that will never appear in slick tourist handouts from the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau though, and that’s the city’s first air raid on May 13, 1985, when the city deliberately bombed an occupied house containing children, sparking a deadly firestorm.

A bomb dropped on an American city by that city’s own police force?

Yes, a bomb made with hi-explosive military C-4 and powerful Tovex dropped by Philadelphia police from a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter onto the roof of 6221 Osage Ave., located in West Philadelphia just blocks from the University of Pennsylvania – considered America’s ‘First’ university.

Police drop satchel of C-4 explosive on the MOVE housePolice drop satchel of C-4 explosive on the MOVE house

That 5:27PM bombing ignited a small fire that grew steadily because of an unconscionable decision by Philadelphia’s then Police Commissioner, Greg Sambor.

The commissioner ordered arriving firefighters not to fight the spreading blaze, telling them to “let the fire burn” because he wanted to use the flames as a “tactical weapon” to drive out persons barricaded inside the bombed house.

Over three hours later, when firefighters finally received permission to attack this blaze with hoses, it had become a raging inferno that gutted 61 homes – including the entire 6200 block of Osage Ave. – leaving 250 homeless and killing 11 people in the original bombed house, five of them children ranging in ages from 7-to-14-years-old.

All of the fatalities – adults and children – were members of MOVE, a radical organization that had waged a series of often violent confrontations with Philadelphia city officials for over a decade.

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During the 1970s and early 1980s MOVE was an offensively confrontational group.

The group had fortified 6221 Osage Ave. as part of their strategy to win release of nine imprisoned members they felt authorities had unjustly convicted for a fatal 1978 shootout with police.

The March 1986 report from the MOVE Commission established by Philadelphia’s then mayor to probe the 5/13/85 bombing declared that MOVE had “held Osage Avenue “hostage” for nearly two years [through a] deliberate use of terror…violent acts against their own neighbors.”

The flash point for that series of confrontations, however, was rampant brutality by Philadelphia police.

In 1973, months after MOVE first surfaced publicly, a federal judge issued a ruling in a class-action lawsuit on brutality, unrelated to MOVE, where he stated that violence by Philadelphia police – from physical assaults to fatal shootings – occurred with such frequency it could not “be dismissed as rare, isolated incidents.”

Typically though, Philadelphia’s body politic dismissed the televised police brutality on May 13th as an isolated incident precipitated by MOVE’s intransigence.

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