Members of the radical group MOVE made two desperate, but unsuccessful, attempts to help four children escape as their burning row house collapsed around them in flames, a frightened 13-year-old survivor testified today.
Michael Moses Ward, known as "Birdie Africa" during his years with MOVE, said the first escape attempt began after police dropped a bomb on the roof at 5:27 p.m. May 13 but stopped when "the cops started shooting."
That forced the children to remain in a basement garage, where they had huddled for 13 hours under wet blankets as adults in the house waged a daylong battle with police, he said.
The second attempt came "when the fire got real heavy and we smell all that smoke and we couldn't breathe. That's when we started yelling, 'The kids coming out,' " Ward said in a dramatic videotaped interview played today before a commission investigating the incident in which four children and seven adults died.
Obviously pained and nervous, Ward said he and three other sobbing children and Ramona Africa, 30, the only other survivor, "all started shouting, trying to come out, and trying to all come out . . . . 'Mona went out, and she said it is all right now, we could come out, and then we all started running to come out."
This time, he said, "They the police wasn't shooting." But the rear of the house was engulfed in smoke, and flaming debris was falling from the roof, other testimony showed.
Ward said he tried to climb a backyard fence to escape as Ramona Africa helped Phil Africa, 12, and Tree Africa, 15. All MOVE members used the last name Africa.
"Then she told them to keep running," he added. "She tried to get me, and I didn't make it. Then I fell, and I kept on running again . . . that is when I fell and I fainted."
A police officer found Ward badly burned in a pool of water in an alley behind the row house. Ramona was arrested nearby. The other children were never seen alive.
Ward, extremely shy, wore blue jeans, a striped polo shirt and a windbreaker for the 140-minute interview, broadcast on public television in the 15th day of hearings.
Two police officers, who observed the escape attempt from windows in a house across the alley, corroborated parts of Ward's testimony. They said they saw the 13-year-old, an adult woman and two other teen-agers in the backyard as the fire became an inferno.
But the officers testified they saw only one escape attempt. They said a male left the house behind the children, fired four or five rifle shots toward police positions and retreated into the burning house with one of the children. The house collapsed moments later.
Sixty other houses in a two-block area were destroyed in the six-hour blaze ignited when police dropped the bomb.
Ramona Africa, jailed on several charges connected with the incident, has refused to testify before the 11-member panel appointed by Mayor W. Wilson Goode.
Ward's testimony was the first public glimpse inside the MOVE compound since the battle with police began at dawn May 13.
He is a shy, withdrawn teen-ager whose mother, Rhonda Harris Africa, died in the fire with another child in her arms. His father, with whom he now lives, was not a MOVE member.
David S. Shrager, the youth's lawyer, said Ward has spent 90 percent of his life in MOVE communes where he was never permitted to play with toys, watch television or attend school. "When he came out, he could not read or write nor even tell time," Shrager said.
Ward was apparently an obedient, streetwise kid. Speaking in hushed, barely audible tones, he said MOVE children were allowed to eat only raw fish and vegetables, although they sometimes "sneaked cooked food" and once were fed raw chicken.
The children washed their own clothing; helped adult members build a bunker of logs, steel and plywood atop the row house; kept a lookout for police officers, whom they knew by name, and talked openly of "getting ready for the confrontation," he said.
"What is a confrontation?" panel Chairman William H. Brown III asked.
"When the cops come and stuff," the youth replied.
He said the children were asleep on the second floor May 13 when they were awakened by Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor's order at dawn that everyone leave the house. The children and women went to the basement garage and, after the shooting began, Ward said one adult told him, "They got some mean bombs out there."
The children spent the next 13 hours under blankets soaked with water to protect them from tear gas, and they heard gunshots and explosions, he said. At one point, presumably in midafternoon, Ward said that adults told the children to leave the house but "we said we didn't want to go. We wanted to be with them."
This changed when police dropped what Ward called "the big bomb" from a helicopter in an attempt to destroy the rooftop bunker. "It shook the whole house up," he said.
Conrad Africa, one of four males in the house, opened the garage door attempting to lead the children to freedom, Ward said. "They police started shooting and then came back and shut the thing up . . . . It was a 'do-do-do-do-do.' Just that. Like bullets were going after each other."