Michael Ward, known as Birdie Africa during MOVE bombing, dies

Michael Moses Ward, almost 16. "You can be anything you want to be," his father, Andino, told him.
Michael Moses Ward, almost 16. "You can be anything you want to be," his father, Andino, told him. (File Photograph)
Posted: September 27, 2013

Michael Moses Ward, 41, who was known as Birdie Africa when he survived the 1985 MOVE bombing, died Friday, Sept. 20, aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean, officials said.

Mr. Ward was found unconscious in a hot tub on the Carnival Dream, said Craig Engelson, an investigator for the Brevard County (Fla.) Medical Examiner's Office. The death appeared to be an accidental drowning, he said, but a toxicology screening will take about six weeks.

Mr. Ward's father, Andino, said Wednesday that he and his son were vacationing with relatives.

"It was a family cruise," Ward said. "It was my 30th wedding anniversary and his sister's 10th anniversary, and her in-laws' 50th anniversary. So all of the kids treated us to an anniversary cruise."

He said the ship had made stops in Mexico, Belize, and the Dominican Republic.

Ward said his son had been living in the Pennsylvania suburbs. He declined to name the town or describe his son's most recent occupation.

The funeral will be private, he said, making it clear that the family remains reticent because of the events of May 13, 1985 - as were others who directly or indirectly touched by the tragedy.

On that evening, after a daylong armed confrontation with MOVE members, police dropped a satchel containing a bomb made of the plastic military explosive C-4 and the commercial product Tovex TR-2 on the radical group's fortified rowhouse in West Philadelphia.

The explosion sparked a blaze that city officials allowed to burn. When the fire was out, 61 homes were destroyed and 11 people, including five children were dead.

Mr. Ward was the only child to survive the bombing, and Ramona Africa the only adult. His mother, Rhonda Africa, was among those killed.

Ramona Africa said she was saddened to learn of his death.

"We are just so sorry to hear about that," she said. "The only thing I can say is that if he was still with MOVE and hadn't been snatched from MOVE, he would not have drowned on no cruise ship. We don't go on cruise ships. It just shows you how protective MOVE's belief is. John Africa taught us that it is dangerous to be out in a body of water like that."

Retired Police Officer James Berghaier, who helped rescue the boy, told CBS3 that the news of Mr. Ward's death was very upsetting to him.

"He has been through a lot. It's a shame and he is at peace now," Berghaier said.

The image of an undersized, nearly naked, severely burned 13-year-old Birdie Africa being carried to safety as the MOVE home and the rest of the Osage Avenue block burned has remained an iconic image for nearly 30 years.

The calamitous event left the teen with lifelong scars on his abdomen, arms and face, and Philadelphia with the ignominious reputation as the city that had bombed its own people.

Mr. Ward had no contact with MOVE from then on.

He was born on Dec. 19, 1971, to Rhonda Cheryl Harris and Andino Ward, who had been together since they were teens and had recently married in a Baptist ceremony in Nicetown. The couple, who shared a passion for civil rights, named him Olewolffe (Arabic for "prince") Momer Puim Ward.

He became Birdie Africa two years later, after his parents had separated and his mother had joined MOVE, taken on a new surname, and moved into the compound at 6221 Osage.

It was only after the disaster, when he went to live with his father, that he became Michael Moses Ward.

In a 1995 interview with The Inquirer, Mr. Ward spoke of his life with MOVE, of being forced to live on a diet of raw vegetables and fruit while the adults ate hearty cooked meals, of being denied schooling and neighborhood playmates, of stealing toys and burying them in the MOVE compound.

"I'm still afraid of them, of MOVE," he said. "Some of the things that went on there I can't get out of my head, bad things, things I haven't told anybody except my father.

"But I'll tell you this: I didn't like being there. They said it was a family, but a family isn't something where you are forced to stay when you don't want to. And none of us wanted to stay, none of the kids. We were always planning ways to run away, but we were too little. We didn't know how to get away. And we were scared."

But that was the life he had always known. His earliest memories, he said, were of growing up at a MOVE commune in Virginia.

He said his mother tried to leave MOVE, but threats to her and him made that impossible. Instead, they lived in fear of everything: police, the neighborhood, MOVE founder John Africa, and anything else that came their way.

"The only regret I have is about me being hurt and my mom dying and the other kids," he said. "I feel bad for the people who died, but I don't have any anger toward anybody. See, I got out."

In a 2005 interview with The Inquirer, Mr. Ward's views on the MOVE disaster were little changed.

"I think about it from time to time, but I don't dwell on it," he said.

After the disaster, Mr. Ward was reunited with his father, and the long process of bringing him back to health began.

In the end, he came a long way, especially considering that it took years of rehabilitation to patch up the second- and third-degree burns that covered 20 percent of his body.

And, considering that while he was 13 when he emerged from the burning rowhouse, he carried less than 100 pounds on his 4-feet-7-inch frame.

And, considering that under the direction of John Africa, Birdie and the other children never went to school, were usually naked - even in winter - until they were about 6 or so, and spurned many of the conventions of modern living - things such as toothbrushes, toys, cooked foods.

Even the group's name was part of their rebellion. MOVE is not an acronym; it stands for nothing.

Mr. Ward lived with his father in Lansdale from 1986 to 1992. He played fullback and cornerback for the North Penn High School football team.

In 1991, Mr. Ward and his father reached a settlement with the administration of Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr., which paid them $840,000 up front, with each receiving $1,000 per month for life.

Even so, it took him years to reintegrate into normal society. Mr. Ward had never spent a day in school and had never played with children from outside the compound. He went from a nearly stone-age existence to living with his father, his father's new wife, Amal, and two stepsisters, Sophia and Tatiana, in Montgomery County.

He was initially enrolled in special-education classes and it was a long climb before graduation from North Penn.

Mr. Ward served in the Army from 1997 to 2001. He was stationed in Florida, North Carolina, and Germany, earning the rank of sergeant. He served as an Army cameraman and videographer, making military training videos.

He later became a long-distance trucker, driving an 18-wheeler along the Northeast Corridor from Maine to Virginia. He also worked as a barber in his spare time, cutting friends' hair. He said he earned his barber's license after high school.

He married and had a daughter and a son before divorcing in 2005.

Mr. Ward, who described himself as a Christian who eschewed organized religion, said that despite his successes, his life had been difficult.

"The thing that helps me is I have a drive to better myself," he said.

When asked in 2005 what he saw himself doing in 10 years, he saw better times.

"Hopefully, I will be retired. I want to own my own business and watch my kids grow up," he said. "I want to retire when I'm 45."


>Inquirer.com

See an exclusive multimedia presentation on

the MOVE bombing at www.inquirer.com/birdie


vclark@phillynews.com

215-854-5717

 

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