A fire caused by a bomb dropped last May on a rowhouse occupied by the radical group MOVE was allowed to burn because the fire commissioner thought the blaze could be controlled, Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor said today.
Testifying before a commission investigating the incident, Sambor said he wanted the fire to continue burning until a rooftop bunker was destroyed and that he did nothing to encourage resumption of firefighting efforts -- as Mayor W. Wilson Goode ordered -- even though children were in the house.
Seven adults and four children, all MOVE members, died in the fire, which burned out of control for about six hours and destroyed 61 row houses, leaving 250 persons homeless and causing $10 million in damage.
Appearing for the second full day before the mayoral panel, Sambor said he asked Fire Commissioner William Richmond if the fire could be controlled and "the response was affirmative . . . . If he would have said no, I would have abandoned the operation."
He added, "I wanted to get the bunker. I want to get a tactical superiority."
Goode had issued an order "to put the fire out" a few minutes before, but firefighting efforts stopped shortly after they began.
Asked by commission counsel William Lytton who had ordered them halted, Sambor said, "It was not I. I don't know."
Asked if he tried to find out why water was turned off, he said:
"Not particularly . . . because it is not my job. It's the fire department's. I don't know anything about fighting fires, and it would be presumptuous of me to tell them how to fight one. I wouldn't even know where to begin."
The fire began a few minutes after a bomb was dropped at 5:27 p.m. on the MOVE row house, located in a crowded middle-class neighborhood of West Philadelphia.
Sambor testified that he recommended dropping the bomb but did not know that it would contain C4, a powerful explosive. He said it was hoped that the bomb would "dislodge the bunker" and "blow a hole in the roof" so tear gas could be fired inside.
For the second consecutive day, Sambor contradicted a key element of Goode's account of the mayor's role in the incident. He said the mayor, contrary to the mayor's testimony, was told that the bomb would be dropped from a helicopter and "concurred in its use. If he hadn't, we would not have gone forward."
Leo Brooks, the city's former managing director, offered similar testimony Wednesday. A third former official, William J. Green, who preceded Goode as mayor and under whom Goode was city managing director, joined those attacking Goode's testimony today.
Green appeared in the press room outside the hearing room to say that his administration had never, as Goode claimed, maintained a "hands-off policy" toward MOVE and that, as mayor, he had been "personally familiar with the minutest details" of the touchy situation involving MOVE.
Asked if this was a "veiled" criticism of Goode, Green said, "I don't veil criticism." Later, he said, "I've made it pretty clear there were things done [during the MOVE confrontation] I wouldn't have done."
Sambor said Lt. Frank Powell, head of the city's bomb squad, told him that only two pounds of Tovex, an explosive gel normally used in mining, would be placed in the bomb. He said Powell, who constructed the bomb, told him that Tovex "was safe to handle" and "assured me chances of fire were little or none."
Sambor, under questioning, said he was "not entirely satisfied" with his department's performance in the confrontation, adding, "I am far from satisfied with the results."
Sambor did not spell out why but, during two days before the panel, he said subordinates had used a device to blow off the porch of the MOVE row house and brought an antitank gun and automatic weapons to the scene without his knowledge.