Birdie Africa's dad opens up on his death at sea

Posted: June 27, 2014

THE HORRIFIC images, telecast live from West Philly, transfixed the world. A police helicopter had dropped a bomb on a ramshackle fortress on Osage Avenue near Cobbs Creek, and a roaring fire was consuming 60 homes.

Amid the chaos, a frightened teenager emerged like a specter from the wreckage. One of two survivors of the city's attack on the MOVE organization, Birdie Africa was led into a police van and driven to safety. It was May 13, 1985.

Three decades later, more than an hour's drive and a world away from Osage Avenue, Andino Ward, 60, spoke last week with the Daily News on his suburban back porch about his son Michael Moses Ward, the man once known as Birdie.

Ward had battled for more than a decade to gain custody of his son before the fire, only to find him accidentally drowned in a hot tub last September during a Caribbean cruise. He was 41. In the interview, Ward disclosed troubling allegations by a doctor who had been on board, but said he has no desire to sue.

"When you fight so hard to get someone back, you never think, for as hard as you fought, that you'd lose them so easily," said Ward, who now sports knee-length dreadlocks in sharp contrast to his clean-cut 1980s appearance.

Meanwhile, documents filed last week with the Montgomery County Register of Wills reveal that Michael's estate, which will go to his son and daughter, is worth almost $2 million.

A death at sea

In the days following Michael's death, Ward was told that a fellow passenger was interested in talking with him about what happened aboard the Carnival Dream cruise ship, he said.

With some hesitation, Ward took the offer, and was connected with a doctor - Ward declined to disclose his identity - who said he had been a bystander to Michael's death.

"And after what he told us, we can't find complete closure," Ward said.

The doctor, vacationing on the ship with his wife, told Ward that he had been grabbing a bottle of water from the bar in the ship's casino when a flustered passenger burst in and told the bartender that someone was at the bottom of the nearby hot tub.

The doctor ran outside and saw a crowd gathered around the tub, gaping at the muscular figure splayed at its bottom. He told Ward that the crowd included members of the ship's staff, seemingly spellbound.

"He had to literally tell these people to help him pull Michael out," Ward said.

With some difficulty, Michael was brought to the surface. A nurse on the ship's medical staff arrived soon after, the doctor told Ward, but she didn't have a defibrillator or other vital equipment.

Even worse, the doctor alleged, when the nurse obtained a defibrillator, she was hesitant to use it and allegedly asked a colleague if it was safe to use on a wet body - basic knowledge when using that device.

The Port Canaveral, Fla., police report from that day weaves a similar story: Two passengers saw the body but didn't react initially, thinking it was a "painting," and called their friends over to take a look.

Regardless of what happened in the minutes after the discovery of Michael's body, he was pronounced dead at 8:40 p.m., the police report says.

The Brevard County, Fla., medical examiner ruled Michael's death as an accidental drowning due to "acute ethyl alcohol intoxication": He had a blood-alcohol level of .156 when he died.

"It's just devastating in the fact that there was a potential that he could've lived," Ward said. "Especially the callousness of not only ship's personnel, but the mere aspect of society - that people would rather stand and watch than do something."

When asked for comment, Carnival said its "shipboard medical personnel are highly trained in the use of lifesaving medical equipment, including cardiac defibrillators, and medical assistance arrived promptly on the scene. Resuscitation efforts were initiated in a professional and appropriate manner."

The company declined requests to speak with employees who had been on the ship at the time of Michael's death.

What's left behind

Last week, as Ward remembered the son over whom he once got into a fistfight with MOVE leader John Africa - and for whom he literally dodged bullets - Michael's family filed tax documents with the Montgomery County Register of Wills concerning his estate.

The documents detail nearly $2 million in assets, to be split evenly between Michael's 19-year-old daughter and his 14-year-old son. The Daily News is withholding their names at the family's request.

The biggest chunk of that estate is a $1.9 million life-insurance annuity contract issued through Allstate.

An attorney for the family said the money stems from a settlement that Michael was awarded in 1991 through a lawsuit with the city in the wake of the MOVE bombing.

Those who witnessed his final days say the jaunt through the Caribbean had done wonders for Michael Ward, who was working for the pharmaceutical company Merck.

"He was the happiest we had ever seen him," Ward said. "It was unfathomable - to lose someone on the last day of a trip that was so much fun, in a situation where the entire family is happy."

On the cruise with Michael were Andino and his wife, Amal; Michael's sister Tatiana; her boyfriend, Jazz; Michael's sister Sophia Cowan; and her husband, Cameron Cowan.

They spent their days scuba diving and swimming with dolphins in the picture-perfect surroundings of Belize, Honduras and Cozumel. Their nights were spent laughing and reminiscing over dinner and drinks.

On the final leg of the trip, as the ship cut a course to its berth in Port Canaveral, Ward and his wife decided to turn in for a nap.

But Michael decided to stay up, sipping drinks in the ship's casino and lounging in an outdoor hot tub, Ward said.

Receipts from Michael's bar tab show that he bought 12 drinks between 4 and 6:50 p.m., ending with a shot of Glenmorangie single-malt scotch whisky and two shots of Absolut Citron vodka that he drank at the bar, according to the police report. It is not known how many of the other drinks he consumed.

He then asked his sister's boyfriend to light a Romeo y Juliet cigar for him, and retreated back to the hot tub.

That was about 7 p.m., police records show. It was the last time anyone saw Michael alive.

'A burden to bear'

Now, nearly a year after Michael was laid to rest at Northwood Cemetery in West Oak Lane - alongside his mother, Rhonda Africa, who died in the bombing - Ward says he's finally coming to terms with the tragedy.

"At a certain point, you have no choice," he said. "You have to recognize that nothing will change the circumstances, and if you don't find peace, it will become something that completely absorbs and haunts you for the rest of your life."

He said that he initially had considered bringing a lawsuit against Carnival, but that, out of greater concern for the other side of Michael's family, he abandoned the idea.

"Basically, they were not willing to entertain talking about [a lawsuit]," Ward said. "Moving forward would've created a fight, and, in the end, we asked ourselves, 'Do we really want to go through with it?'

"What's done is done; he's not coming back."

Whenever Ward talks about his late son, his eyes light up.

He can't help but smile while spinning tales about the ways Michael overcame the indoctrination of MOVE, a group that only fed him raw food and often forced him to walk around naked.

"He was a remarkable man and a loving father," Ward said of his son.

"My anticipation was always that I'd die before him; I thought I'd continue to watch him grow and see what he would become.

"That's not going to happen now that he's gone, and that's a huge burden to bear."

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