By MARGALIT FOX
Published: September 27, 2013
When the boy ran from the house, he was burned over a fifth of his body and so malnourished that at 13 he looked like a child of 9.
He had never been to school and could not read, write, use a toothbrush or tell time. His mother would die in the fire he had fled.
Yet after years of rehabilitation from injuries physical and psychological, he graduated from high school, served in the Army, became a father and made a career as a long-haul trucker and a barber.
The boy, then known as Birdie Africa, and later as Michael Ward, was one of just two people — and the only child — to survive the Move bombing, the 1985 Philadelphia debacle in which police officers seeking to rout a black separatist group touched off a fire that killed 11 people, 5 of them children, and destroyed three city blocks.
Mr. Ward, 41, died Sept. 20 while vacationing aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean. An investigator for the Brevard County, Fla., medical examiner’s office told The Associated Press that Mr. Ward’s body was found in a hot tub on the ship, the Carnival Dream. The apparent cause was accidental drowning.
The Move bombing endures in the national memory as one of the most shameful episodes in Philadelphia’s history.
In an interview on Friday, the filmmaker Jason Osder, who made a documentary about the bombing, said that Mr. Ward’s death “in a strange way has reminded us of the nature of the event itself: it’s tragic that he died young, but it serves as a reminder of the other five children that didn’t even live to age 41.”
Mr. Osder’s film, “Let the Fire Burn,” which is organized around 13-year-old Michael’s videotaped testimony at the official inquiry into the bombing, is scheduled to open at Film Forum in New York on Wednesday and nationwide afterward.
On May 13, 1985, hundreds of police officers converged on Move’s fortified row house in West Philadelphia, intent on serving arrest warrants on several of its members. After a gun battle during which the police failed to dislodge the group, they dropped explosives on the roof.
The explosion started a fire that destroyed Move’s house and 60 others, leaving some 250 people homeless. All of the 11 dead were Move members or their children; only Michael and Ramona Africa, an adult in the group, survived.
Although Move positioned itself as a radical back-to-nature group, it was run, in the young Mr. Ward’s accounts, far more like a cult.
Michael Moses Ward — the name his father gave him after he was rescued — was born Olewolffe Momer Puim Ward on Dec. 19, 1971, the son of Andino Ward and the former Rhonda Harris.
His parents separated when he was about 2, and he spent his early childhood with his mother in a Move commune in Virginia, where they became known as Rhonda and Birdie Africa. (In solidarity with Move’s founder, John Africa, né Vincent Leaphart, members took Africa as their surname.) Michael and his mother later went to live with the group in Philadelphia.
As Michael testified afterward, Move’s children were forbidden cooked food and contact with outsiders. While the adults around them ate hot meals, the children subsisted largely on a diet of raw fruit and vegetables, deemed purer — and therefore fit for children — by the movement’s leaders.
Toys were also forbidden, though the children grew skilled at spotting neighborhood children’s discards on the street and secreting them about the house.
“We would poke little holes in the wall and hide toys there,” Mr. Ward, who spoke to the news media only rarely, said in a 1995 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I remember I had a toy soldier hidden in the wall in the basement.”
Michael and the other children resolved to run away. When Move’s leaders got wind of their plan, he said in the Inquirer interview, they told the children that if they did, they would be tracked down and killed.
Testifying in the fall of 1985 in the city’s inquiry into the bombing, Michael told of huddling in the basement during the standoff, listening to bullets fly and then hearing an explosion (“It shook the whole house up,” he said) before being pushed by his mother into an alley behind the house.
Afterward, he was reunited with his father, who lived outside Philadelphia and had been searching for him for years, unaware that he was so close at hand.
He learned to read and write, graduating from high school in Lansdale, Pa., where he was on the football team, and attending junior college briefly. From 1997 to 2001, he served in the Army, attaining the rank of sergeant.
Move’s legacy remained visible in the burn scars on Mr. Ward’s face, arms and torso. It could be discerned in other ways as well.
“I have a hard time getting close to anybody, feeling anything about anybody,” Mr. Ward told The Inquirer. “It has to do with the way I was brought up.”
He added: “It’s not even so much the fire. I had some bad dreams about the fire when I was little, but not anymore. The things that bother me most are the things I remember about Move before the fire. There are some things that happened that I can’t talk about.”
As was widely reported, under the terms of a 1991 settlement with the City of Philadelphia, Mr. Ward and his father were to receive a lump-sum payment of $840,000, followed by a series of lifetime monthly payments starting at $1,000 and increasing over the years.
Andino Ward has said publicly that all of the initial payment went to legal fees; Michael Ward said that he had never grown rich from the rest.
Michael Ward, who lived in Pennsylvania, was divorced. Besides his father, his survivors include a son, Michael, and a daughter, Rhonda. The family did not return telephone calls, and further information about Mr. Ward, including his survivors, could not be confirmed.
In the Inquirer interview, Mr. Ward spoke of the fire as a devastation — but not an unalloyed one.
“In a way, I’m glad it happened,” he said. “The only regret I have is about me being hurt and my mom dying and the other kids. I feel bad for the people who died, but I don’t have any anger toward anybody. See, I got out.”