This city's fire commissioner and its former police commissioner -- but not Mayor W. Wilson Goode -- "could be considered responsible" for the deaths of five children who were among 11 people killed last May in a confrontation between police and the radical group MOVE, the head of a panel that investigated the incident said today.
Chairman William Brown III said a decision by Fire Commissioner William C. Richmond and then-Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor to allow a fire to burn after police had dropped a bomb on the row house that was MOVE's headquarters was "absolutely inexcusable" and "led ultimately to deaths of the children," which it said "appear to be unjustified homicides."
Brown made his remarks at a televised news conference as the commission released a report summarizing its eight-month investigation. The report recommended that a grand jury be convened. District Attorney Ron Castille said later that his office would look into the matter.
The report concluded that Goode, Sambor, Richmond and others were "grossly negligent" in their handling of the May 13 incident.
Brown said Sambor and Richmond "could be considered responsible" for the deaths because they decided to "use the fire as a tactical weapon" to end a 12-hour police siege. The fire raged out of control for six hours, engulfing a West Philadelphia neighborhood, destroying 61 homes and leaving 250 people homeless.
"I do not believe the mayor is responsible for the deaths . . . because he was not at the scene and he had given an order to put the fire out," Brown said.
He noted that fire experts told the 11-member commission, which Goode appointed, that the blaze could have been easily controlled during the 45 minutes after police dropped the bomb on a rooftop bunker on the heavily fortified row house. The charred remains of six adult MOVE members and the five children were found in the rubble. One adult and a teen-age boy escaped.
The 70-page report lambasted Goode, the city's first black mayor, for almost every step he took over 15 months in dealing with MOVE, which the commission described as "an authoritarian, violence-threatening cult."
It was especially critical of a Goode-approved plan to drop the bomb from a helicopter, calling it "reckless, ill-conceived and hastily approved. Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house should have been rejected out-of-hand by the mayor, the managing director, the police commissioner and the fire commissioner."
Goode, who watched the news conference on TV, said later: "I told you they were independent, that they were strong individuals."
The panel, composed of six blacks and five whites, was initially suspect because four of its members contributed to Goode's 1983 mayoral campaign.
A leaked version of the commission's report was published Sunday in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Since then, two public opinion polls have indicated a decline in the mayor's popularity; in one of them, 19 percent of the respondents said Goode should resign.
But the mayor said today "I will never quit," and he scheduled a televised address Sunday night.
Sambor and Richmond could not be reached for comment on the report.
Brown described the commission as "the conscience of this community" and said it had reached its conclusions "without regard for personal or political interests."
Asked if Goode or other top officials had lied to the panel during five weeks of public hearings last fall, Brown said discrepancies in testimony could be due to "faulty recall," but he suggested that a grand jury might charge some of the witnesses with perjury and other crimes.
He said he considered the six children in the MOVE house "hostages," and added that "the way to deal with a hostage situation is not to fire 10,000 rounds of ammunition, drop a bomb or throw explosives."
Asked if Goode, a Democrat, might be involved in any criminal investigation to come, District Attorney Castille, a newly elected Republican, said: "Absolutely no one is above the law in Philadelphia."