Mayor W. Wilson Goode testified today that he told subordinates "to put the fire out" but that his order was disobeyed after police dropped a bomb on a fortified west Philadelphia row house last May.
As he watched the resultant blaze engulf 61 houses, Goode said, he cried because he realized that "we had on our hands an absolute disaster."
In a remarkable 6 1/2 hours of testimony before a commission he appointed to probe the incident, Goode described himself as misled, misinformed and left in the dark about many vital decisions made on his behalf after he delegated authority during the crisis.
Goode said he did not know that police planned to use automatic weapons, explosives and a helicopter to drop a bomb. He said he also did not know basic elements of the police assault plan.
"I don't think I made what I'd call any mistakes," Goode said, referring to his handling of one of the nation's worst urban disasters in years. But, he said, "knowing what I know now," he should have been "more a hands-on kind of person" and asked "more detailed, specific questions" about subordinates' plans.
The day of the siege, Goode said he took "full responsibility" for what had happened. And today he said he would "not try to place any blame on my subordinates."
However, Goode's testimony put the reputations of Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor and Leo Brooks, who has retired as city managing director, on the line. Brooks, who Goode conceded recalls some incidents differently, and Sambor are expected to testify Wednesday.
A retired Army general, Brooks was Goode's eyes and ears at the scene. Goode said he ordered Brooks "to put the fire out" about 20 minutes after police dropped the bomb on the row house roof in a crowded neighborhood.
Under questioning by commission member Henry W. Ruth Jr., a former Watergate special prosecutor, Goode said he has never received a "satisfactory explanation" of why his order was not followed.
Goode said fire department deluge guns, which had poured tons of water on the row house during a daylong siege, were turned on but then off under orders from Sambor.
He also said Brooks had not told him about using a helicopter in relaying word of a decision to use explosives against a fortified rooftop bunker. Goode said Brooks recalls otherwise.
The fire burned out of control six hours, and the remains of seven adults and four children, all MOVE members, were found in the ashes.
Goode said Sambor devised the police plan and, at 6 a.m. May 13, led an assault on the MOVE compound that erupted into an exchange of gunfire that Goode said sounded like "a war zone" from his home 33 blocks away.
He described himself as intimately involved in dealing with a threatened MOVE confrontation that never developed Aug. 8, 1984, the anniversary of a 1978 conflict with MOVE in which one policeman was shot to death. He said he then let the issue drop for months and turned the matter over to others.
The authorities' first planning session occurred 10 days before the assault. Goode said he gave Sambor specific instructions on May 7.
Goode cited rumors that MOVE members stole explosives, tunneled beneath their block on Osage Avenue, stored gasoline and stockpiled automatic weapons and said authorities understood that an "armed confrontation" with neighbors was increasingly possible.
On May 7, Goode said he told Sambor to prepare a plan to evacuate the row house and keep three elements in mind: protect lives of police and firefighters, avoid harming MOVE children and use only handpicked officers without "hot tempers" or "emotional attachments" to the 1978 incident.
"I told him to take your time, have a good plan . . . so we can proceed with a tremendous amount of order," Goode said.
The mayor also said he asked police to take the children into custody while they played in a nearby park. That request, like others from him, was apparently ignored. Brooks was out of town for a daughter's graduation during critical days before the assault, leaving Sambor in charge of the planning.
Commission member Neil J. Welch, a former FBI assistant director, asked Goode why he placed so much faith in the ability of a police department "under almost continuous federal investigation for corruption."
Ruth asked Good if he had "deliberately distanced" himself from MOVE "because it was a no-win situation."
"No, sir," the mayor said.