Thirty years after it happened, Barbara Grant still has trouble describing what happened on May 13, 1985.
“When I think about a word that describes that day, I can’t really come up with one,” the current principal at Cardenas-Grant Communications said. She added that she still finds it hard to describe her emotions about that day.
Grant’s opening remark was part of a panel discussion titled “MOVE, 30 Years Later: A look at the people, politics, and policies of a disaster.”
The panel, hosted at PhillyCAM Studios in Center City and led by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, featured local veteran journalists who discussed their coverage of the infamous MOVE bombing at 6221 Osage Avenue, which resulted in the loss of 11 lives, five of whom were children.
The bombing was the culmination of rising tensions between MOVE – a radical black liberation group – and Philadelphia police. In 1978, a shootout between the organization and police in Powelton Village resulted in the death of officer James Ramp, and several firefighters, police and MOVE members were injured. The back-to-nature organization then relocated to Osage Avenue, where rising tensions with residents and several calls to Philadelphia police led to another standoff seven years later when the bomb was dropped. The resulting fire burned down more than 60 houses in the neighborhood.
Linn Washington, a journalism professor at Temple who covered the bombing for the Daily News, said that when he woke up that day, he knew it was going to be significant.
“When I left the house that morning at about 3:30, I knew it was going to be a hell of a day,” Washington said in an interview after the panel discussion. “Whenever MOVE and police were said within five words of each other, there was going to be some kind of trouble. I never realized I would literally be spending a day in hell.”
Walt Hunter, a longtime CBS3 reporter, and Pete Kane, a veteran photojournalist for NBC10, also served on the panel. The discussion was moderated by Vincent Thompson, president of the Philadelphia Black Public Relations Society.
Hunter said he’s still looking for answers about the bombing from 30 years ago. He said he felt opportunites to prevent the disaster were squandered.
“Certainly, the children could have been saved,” Hunter said. While tearing up, he told a story of how he returned home that night and saw his three-year-old son playing in the backyard. At the time, an overflow of emotions took over, as he threw his lawn furniture and embraced his son after covering such an horrific event.
“I still remember that moment as clearly as I remember two minutes ago,” Hunter said.
Kane, who took several photographs that day while hiding out in a house on Osage Avenue, said he was taking a brief break when the bomb was dropped.
“At the time the bomb dropped, I was getting pork chops, something from the fridge to eat,” he said. He then got a call from inside the house, telling him about what had just happened.
To this day, Kane has never revealed where he was hiding. But seeing the fire spread after the bomb dropped still haunts him, he said.
“When I turned around, I lost it,” Kane said of his emotions when he left the area while the fire continued to spread.
All four panel members agreed that the bombing could have been avoided. Hunter said that although tensions were rising, violence should not have been the answer.
“ could have easily been avoided,” he said. “There were so many types of outreach that could have been done.”
Washington said that after covering the bombing, he’s realized how important it is for journalists to be thorough with their reporting.
“I remember after May 13, going to the editors at the Daily News and telling them, ‘we need to do a story about how this happened,’” he said. “I did get a small article in that provided the roots of it, which was important to me to provide context … so the short answer is to just work harder and dig deeper as a reporter.”
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Steve_Bohnel.