MOVE crisis had lasting effect on officer

Posted: May 12, 2010

Philadelphia stakeout officer James Berghaier won his share of headlines in the 1985 MOVE confrontation for rescuing a child from the mayhem - 13-year-old Birdie Africa. The heroics came at a price. The events of that day severely traumatized Berghaier, then 36, who eventually left police work, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The morning of May 13, Berghaier and other officers were to enter 6219 and 6223 Osage Ave., the rowhouses to either side of 6221, open holes in the basement and the second-floor party walls, and insert pepper gas to force the seven adults and six children from the house. "I was OK with that plan," said Berghaier. "It sounded feasible to me."

But getting to the rear door of 6223 from Cobbs Creek Parkway down the alley dividing Osage and Pine was like running a dangerous obstacle course, according to Berghaier: Tear gas. Smoke. Shots being squeezed off one at a time from one direction, rapid shooting from another. And a makeshift wall of wood 10 to 12 feet high that hid MOVE's backyard from view.

"We couldn't wait to get down that alley and make that turn into that house, because we had no clue where the shooting was coming from," he said.

Inside 6223 Osage, the plan proved ineffectual, as MOVE had built walls inside the walls of their house. The police spotted a semicircular spray of damage on the party wall - Berghaier said he was convinced "MOVE was shooting through the walls at us." The house at 6223 suffered serious damage, the first floor even collapsing into the basement. Officers abandoned the second floor, then the first, then the basement.

At that time, Berghaier said, he heard voices coming from the other side of the basement wall. Soon after, in the relative calm of the Cobbs Creek Parkway staging area, he and the others tried to rest. His partner, Charles "Tommy" Mellor, even dozed off. In late afternoon, they learned of the plan to blast apart the bunker atop 6221.

"I didn't actually see [the drop], but I saw a big arc of flame come up from the bunker. ... We anticipated [MOVE members] would come out now, but I underestimated them, they were more devoted than I thought. . . .

"The heat would pop the glass. You'd hear a pop but you couldn't interpret - is that a gunshot or not? . . . The fire is coming out of the windows and rolling up the walls and I think to myself, there's no way anybody can come out, just no way. . . .

"Then out of the smoke the first person I saw was Ramona. I didn't see her come out of the house - I couldn't, there was too much smoke. The fence that was 10, 12 feet high was now 2, 3 feet, completely engulfed. She would walk and stop, walk and stop, then she'd turn around . . . walk some more.

"Then I see Birdie come out of the fire. He literally came through smoke and fire. He didn't run, he walked very methodically. He should have been running, he should have been hollering. At one time Ramona reaches over the fence to try to pull Birdie up to her. They slipped and he fell straight back. Once he went down, he was out. . . ."

Berghaier handed his shotgun to Mellor and, still armed with a .357 Magnum, made his way up the alley, keeping both Africa and Birdie in sight, and expecting other people to emerge.

"I'm saying, 'Son, come over here.' I'm trying to get him to come to me. ... I run out and I scoop him underneath his left arm. And I'll never forget - the first thing he said to me was, 'Don't shoot me, don't shoot me.' . . .

"The whole time, I'm locked on Tommy. I don't want to hear a thump on my back. And Birdie says, 'I'm hungry, I'm hungry.'

"Once I know I'm not in any way going to be hit, I'm trying to decipher what he said. He thought I'm going to shoot him. And I'm thinking, my God, it never even entered my mind. . . . [Handing off Birdie to other rescuers] I remember saying, 'Just take care, son. It's all over.' That was May 13, my son's birthday. I had my son on my mind.

"The part I have a hard time with is what he went through. And then afterward I found out there were these other kids in there. In essence I was a brick wall away. I would have stayed [in 6223] and tried to get through the back of that wall. I think all of us would have made that decision, not just me. I had a real hard time with the kids dying. The adults chose to do that, they wanted to go to war. . . . The bottom line is, we didn't do the job we should have done, and five kids have died and that is bad. I felt horrible."

Berghaier left street work a few months later and left the force on disability about two years later. Even now, he is prone to tearing up as he recounts the rescue, and he still bristles in recalling suspicions raised in news stories (later refuted) about whether he fired his shotgun that day. Autopsies had found bits of matter consistent with buckshot in three bodies.

Berghaier, now 60, has remarried. He has six grandchildren and is project manager for the Mayfair Community Development Center. On May 2, he finished the Broad Street Run in one hour, 39 minutes.

"Honestly, do I think about MOVE every day? No," he said. "But when it's brought up, it's like it happened yesterday. Not in a million years did I think this would happen to me - what I put my family through. I went through a divorce, my mom and dad worry about me. The residual effect, even to this day. . . . I felt good about [rescuing Birdie] but I thought I was treated like a criminal after it was over. And with the positive things that were written, I felt uncomfortable because they singled me out and it was all done in concert with Mellor and [Officer Michael] Tursi."

Berghaier had been on the scene in 1978 when police stormed the MOVE property on Powelton Avenue and was asked to compare the two situations.

"I was there in 1978 and there were a lot of tactical errors. In 1985, I had confidence in the plan: If we pump gas in the second floor and the basement, and Team B does the same on the other side, it's going to force [the MOVE group] to go out the first floor. But I think they, like us, didn't have a Plan B. Then you find out they ran back inside. Why did they run back inside? I guess we'll never know."

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