Michael Moses Ward, a.k.a. Birdie Africa, a survivor of ’85 Philadelphia bombing, dies

September 27, 2013

Michael Moses Ward, formerly known as Birdie Africa, one of two survivors of the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, died Sept. 20 aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean, officials said. He was 41.

Mr. Ward was found unconscious in a hot tub aboard the Carnival Dream, said Craig Engelson, an investigator for the Brevard County Medical Examiner’s Office in Florida. Mr. Ward’s body was taken from the ship to Port Canaveral, Fla.

The medical examiner’s office said the death appeared to be an accidental drowning. Toxicology results are expected in about six weeks, the office said.

Mr. Ward’s father, Andino Ward, said Wednesday that he and his son were vacationing with relatives on an anniversary cruise.

Andino Ward said his son, who became an iconic figure in the MOVE disaster, had been living in the Philadelphia suburbs. He declined to name the town or to describe Mr. Ward’s most recent occupation.


In this May 9, 1996 photo, Michael Moses Ward speaks to reporters outside the federal courthouse in Philadelphia. The Brevard County medical examiner's office says Ward, one of two survivors of the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, died aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean on Sept. 20. (H. Rumph Jr./AP)

MOVE is a Philadelphia-based radical movement founded by John Africa. On the evening of May 13, 1985, after a day-long armed confrontation with MOVE members, police dropped a satchel of explosives onto the radical group’s fortified rowhouse in West Philadelphia.

The explosion sparked a blaze that city officials allowed to burn.

When the fire was out, 61 homes were destroyed and 11 people, including five children, were dead.

Mr. Ward, who ran naked from the burning MOVE compound, was the only child to survive the bombing, and Ramona Africa, the only adult. His mother, Rhonda Africa, was among those killed in the siege.

The image of Birdie Africa, age 13, who was hauled to safety by two police officers, remains iconic after nearly 30 years.

The incident left Mr. Ward with lifelong burn scars on his abdomen, arms and face, and Philadelphia with a global reputation as the city that bombed its own people.

He had no contact with MOVE from then on.

Michael Ward was born Dec. 19, 1971. His original name was Olewolffe (Arabic for Prince) Ward, he said. He became Birdie Africa after his parents split up and his mother joined MOVE. It was only after the disaster, when he went to live with his father in 1986, that he became Michael Moses Ward.

In a 1995 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mr. Ward spoke of his life with MOVE, of being forced to live on a diet of raw vegetables and fruit while the adults ate hearty cooked meals, of being denied schooling and neighborhood playmates, of stealing toys and burying them in the MOVE compound.

“I’m still afraid of them, of MOVE,” he said in 1995. “Some of the things that went on there I can’t get out of my head, bad things, things I haven’t told anybody except my father.

“But I’ll tell you this: I didn’t like being there. They said it was a family, but a family isn’t something where you are forced to stay when you don’t want to. And none of us wanted to stay, none of the kids. We were always planning ways to run away, but we were too little. We didn’t know how to get away. And we were scared.”

His earliest memories, he said, were of growing up in a MOVE commune in Virginia.

He said his mother tried to leave MOVE, but threats to them both made that impossible. Instead, they lived in fear of everything: police, the neighborhood, MOVE founder John Africa, and anything else that came their way.

Mr. Ward said it took years of rehabilitation to patch up the second- and third-degree burns that covered 20 percent of his body. It took longer for him to reintegrate into society. He had never spent a day in school when his father registered him for special-education classes.

After graduating from high school, he married and had two children. He was later divorced and lived in Newark, Del., for many years.

Mr. Ward said he served in the Army from 1997 to 2001 as a cameraman and videographer, making military training videos.

He later became a long-distance trucker and also worked as a barber.

In 1991, Mr. Ward and his father reached a settlement with the administration of then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr., which paid them a lump sum $840,000 up front, plus $1,000 a month for life.

— The Philadelphia Inquirer

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