Joe O'Dowd and Tommy Gibbons: Reporters

Posted: May 07, 2010

WHEN OSAGE Avenue was transformed into a war zone on May 13, 1985, Joe O’Dowd and Thomas J. Gibbons Jr. were exactly where they wanted to be — in the middle of the chaos.

O'Dowd and Gibbons, veteran newsmen, were behind the yellow tape on one of the darkest days in the city's history, elbow-to-elbow with cops and firefighters as the much-anticipated showdown with MOVE took one unthinkable turn after another.

Police sources had leaked details of the planned confrontation to Gibbons and O'Dowd well in advance. Gibbons said he arrived at the scene the night before the ill-fated encounter. A light mist fell in the overnight hours, as the police presence in the area increased dramatically. "You could feel the tension in the air," Gibbons said.

1985: O'Dowd was in his third decade as the Daily News' top police reporter. The yin to his yang was ex-cop Gibbons, who was in the middle of a legendary run as the Inquirer's police reporter. Gibbons had turned to journalism after he was shot in the line of duty while working as a Highway Patrol officer.

When a torrent of gunfire erupted about 6 a.m. on May 13, "it sounded like something out of a movie," O'Dowd recalled. He and Gibbons spent the day dashing around the scene and dodging ricocheting bullets. Sometimes they observed the carnage from an alley at the end of the block; other times, they darted inside a rowhouse on the next block to call in notes to their editors.

"By midafternoon, the police let Joe and I know that something big was going to happen," Gibbons said.

"I thought they'd send a big tank down the street," O'Dowd added. "Then I heard the helicopter."

Both watched in awe as a satchel of explosives was dropped onto the roof of MOVE's headquarters. A small fire soon grew into an uncontrollable beast that consumed the entire neighborhood.

"It turned into a catastrophe," Gibbons said. "The whole block of Osage Avenue was decimated by flames."

City leaders had "plenty of time" to come up with a solid strategy for the showdown with MOVE, O'Dowd said. "They should have had better plans."

Quote: "I asked this one cop, 'What's going to happen?' " O'Dowd said. "He said, 'The only thing I can tell you is, duck at 5:20.' "

2010: O'Dowd, 73, retired from the Daily News in 1999. Now white-haired and reed-thin, he lives in Delaware County and spends a good deal of time taking trips to the Shore with his wife or watching horse races.

Gibbons, 65, left the Inquirer five years ago. He still favors his trademark wardrobe - sharply cut suits and pinstriped shirts. He lives in Northeast Philadelphia, where he says his retirement days seamlessly blend together.

- David Gambacorta

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