An entire west Philadelphia block was all but doomed the moment city officials decided to let a fire started by a police bomb burn until it destroyed a bunker atop a row house occupied by the radical group MOVE, a fire expert testified today.
At today's hearing on the May 13 confrontation, forensic pathologists for the first time identified group leader John Africa as one of the 11 members who died in the fire. They also said that five children were among those victims.
The city medical examiner had said four children died and that their deaths were accidental.
Dr. Ali Z. Hameli, leader of the team, testfied that the deaths of the children should be classified as "homicides" and were caused by "measured and deliberate acts" between MOVE members and city officials. (Hameli's team identified the remains of Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele in Brazil last summer.)
Hameli said metal fragments, including shotgun pellets, were found in the bodies of Africa and four others in the house, raising the possibility that they may have died as result of gunshot wounds or an explosion. He said the deaths of the six adults "were not natural or accidental" but that the conditions of their bodies made it impossible for him to "pinpoint the cause of death."
Charles G. King, a former New York fire marshall, said that for 45 minutes after police dropped the bomb, the blaze was essentially a "surface fire" that "could have been easily put out" by a fire department "squirt gun" or a hand fire extinguisher.
Twenty minutes after it started, Mayor W. Wilson Goode issued an order to "put the fire out," but the city's top police and fire officials decided to let the blaze burn until it had dislodged the bunker. By the time the bunker collapsed about an hour later, King said, the blaze had developed into a "major fire" that could not be put out by conventional means and threatened the entire neighborhood.
Three gasoline cans and piles of debris were clearly identifiable on the rooftop in films King showed the commission. The films indicated that the bomb nearly missed the MOVE house, that it did not pierce the rooftop as intended and that the fire started around the gasoline cans.
After testifying separately, Goode, Police Commissioner Gregore S. Sambor, Fire Commissioner William C. Richmond and former managing director Leo Brooks are scheduled to reappear together Wednesday before the commission investigating the incident. The hearings that have brought Goode into open conflict with other officials -- especially Sambor, Richmond and Brooks.