PHILADELPHIA — Michael Moses Ward, 41, formerly known as Birdie Africa, one of the two survivors of the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, died Sept. 20 aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean, officials said.
Ward was found unconscious in a hot tub last week aboard the Carnival Dream, said Craig Engelson, an investigator for the Brevard County Medical Examiner’s Office in Florida. Ward’s body was taken from the ship to Port Canaveral, Fla.
The medical examiner’s office said the death appeared to be an accidental drowning. Toxicology results are expected in about six weeks, the office said.
Ward’s father, Andino Ward, said Wednesday that he and Ward were vacationing with relatives on an anniversary cruise.
“It was a family cruise,” Andino Ward said in a telephone interview. “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 Cozumel, Mexico; Belize; and the Dominican Republic.
Andino Ward said his son, who became an iconic figure in the MOVE disaster, had been living in the Philadelphia suburbs. He declined to name the town or to describe Ward’s most recent occupation.
On the evening of May 13, 1985, after a daylong armed confrontation with MOVE members, police dropped a satchel of explosives onto the radical group’s fortified row house 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.
Ward, who ran naked from the burning MOVE compound, was the only child to survive the bombing, and Ramona Africa, the only adult. His mother, Rhonda Africa, was among those killed in the siege.
The image of Birdie Africa, 13, who was hauled to safety by two police officers, remains iconic after nearly 30 years.
The incident left Ward with lifelong burn scars on his abdomen, arms and face, and Philadelphia with a global reputation as the city that bombed its own people.
He had no contact with MOVE from then on.
Michael Ward was born Dec. 19, 1971. His original name was Olewolffe (Arabic for Prince) Ward, he said. He became Birdie Africa after his parents split up and his mother joined MOVE. It was only after the disaster, when he went to live with his father, that be became Michael Moses Ward.
In a 1995 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, 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 in 1995. “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, Ward reflected on the MOVE disaster.
“I think about it from time to time, but I don’t dwell on it,” Ward said.
His father, Andino Ward, changed the boy’s name in 1986.
Ward lived with his father in Lansdale, Pa., from 1986 to 1992. He played fullback and cornerback for the North Penn High School football team.
He came a long way, considering that it took years of rehabilitation to patch up the second- and third-degree burns that covered 20 percent of his body. It took longer to reintegrate him into normal society. He had never spent a day in school when his father registered him for special-education classes.
After graduating from North Penn, he married and had a daughter and a son. Ward divorced in 2005. He lived in Newark, Del., for many years.
In 1991, Ward and his father reached a settlement with the administration of then Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr., which paid them $840,000 up front, with each receiving $1,000 per month for life.
Ward served in the Army from 1997 to 2001. He was stationed in Florida, North Carolina and Germany, earning the rank of sergeant. Ward said 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.
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. I want to retire when I’m 45,” he said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services