At Move Trial, `Bomb' Gets Flak As A Loaded Word The Officials' Term Of Choice Is `explosive Device.' The Plaintiffs Scoff, And, In The End, Win A Concession.

Posted: April 30, 1996

It fell from a helicopter and started the worst fire in Philadelphia history. The sticky issue in federal court nowadays is, what do you call it?

One word that former city officials involved in the trial don't like is bomb. They much prefer the term explosive device.

In the latest flare-up in a long, semantic fight spawned by the MOVE tragedy, the judge, lawyers, plaintiffs and defendants in a civil trial unfolding in federal court have been struggling with how to describe what Philadelphia Police Lt. Frank Powell dropped from a helicopter onto the MOVE compound on May 13, 1985.

Yesterday, the jury heard former city Managing Director Leo A. Brooks become the latest witness to object to the word bomb.

A bomb, Brooks explained, is something ``having aerodynamic capabilities, fins, etc., to direct its trajectory.'' A bomb, he said, also has a metal detonator on its head.

What Powell dropped on MOVE's fortified rowhouse in West Philadelphia was merely a fuse-equipped ``bag in which an explosive was put,'' Brooks said.

For her part, Ramona Africa, the only adult MOVE member to survive the fire, grew impatient yesterday with the semantic wrangling. Africa and relatives of two MOVE members killed in the blaze are suing the city and two former top officials for monetary damages.

``When the government does it, it's OK, its minimized,'' Africa told reporters. ``But when a citizen does anything like that, it's terrorism, it's a bomb.''

Africa complained that no one seemed to be mincing words when it came to describing what blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City or the packages sent through the mail by the Unabomber.

Ever since the MOVE disaster, there has been a rift in how to describe the thing that exploded atop the MOVE house on Osage Avenue. Those who endorsed sending that helicopter aloft prefer the clinical phrase explosive device or the even-more-antiseptic entry device. Those who criticize their decision favor the blunter bomb with its militaristic and deadly connotations.

A deadly cocktail made up of the mining explosive Tovex and the military explosive C-4, the satchel dropped on the MOVE house was aiming at a rooftop bunker that had served as a sniper's nest earlier on the day of the confrontation.

The resulting explosion left the bunker intact, but did start a fire. Two city officials on the scene that day - then-Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor and then-Fire Commissioner William C. Richmond - let the fire burn to complete the destruction of the bunker.

But the blaze spread out of control, gutting the MOVE home and 60 others. Eleven people, including five children, were found dead inside the MOVE house.

From the very start of the trial, participants have been picking their words carefully.

U.S. District Judge Louis H. Pollak told potential jurors April 2 that the trial would focus on ``certain dramatic events that happened way back in 1985'' when ``a police helicopter dropping an explosive device - a bomb, some would call it - on the roof of 6221 Osage Avenue.''

On Thursday, Sambor quarreled with the use of the term bomb for what he said he had approved - a satchel stuffed with two pounds of Tovex, a Du Pont Co. product.

``That, to me, is not a bomb,'' Sambor told the jury.

Sambor has long maintained that the public's fascination with a police bombing had confused matters.

``What has imprinted that device on the mind of this city is, in fact, the method of delivery,'' he told the mayoral commission that investigated the disaster a decade ago. ``If it had been carried or thrown into position, or if it had been dropped from a crane, the perception of that action would be quite different. But its intent and essential nature would be the same.''

Whatever you call it, former Mayor W. Wilson Goode has long maintained that he wasn't told about it.

Goode told the federal jury last week that his managing director, Brooks, in briefing him on the planned attack on the bunker, told him the satchel would be manually deposited by police, not dropped from the air.

``I thought it was going to be placed around the bunker,'' Goode said, ``and the bunker was going to be blown off.''

However, Brooks, in his testimony for the trial, also stuck to the story he had told the mayoral commission and thus contradicted his old boss. Brooks said yesterday he had called Goode at the mayor's City Hall office from Osage Avenue and told him:

``We had come to the conclusion that there is no other way to get the bunker down other than by an explosive, and that we'd also come to the conclusion that there is no other way to get the explosive up there than by use of that state police helicopter.''

The former managing director didn't tell the jury that in person. Instead, his videotaped testimony was shown them on a big TV screen. Brooks, like Goode, has been dismissed as a defendant in the civil trial, and court rules stipulate that plaintiffs cannot subpoena witnesses who live more than 100 miles from the courtroom.

Brooks' lawyer has said the former city official, who lives in Alexandria, Va., feared MOVE ``vilification'' if he testified in person.

During his videotaped testimony, taken April 20, Brooks initially insisted that a bomb and an explosive device were ``considerably different.'' But he quickly retreated from that stance.

Under questioning from Ramona Africa's lawyer, Andre Dennis, Brooks conceded that pipe bombs and car bombs lacked ``aerodynamic capabilities,'' as Dennis put it, but were still considered bombs.

Confronted with that observation, Brooks backpedaled and said he would no longer quarrel with the unambiguous word adopted by those suing him. Said Brooks of what fell to the MOVE rooftop 11 years ago: ``I would accept that as being a bomb.''

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