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Firefighters Contradict Police Account

July 29, 1985

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Three firefighters have contradicted accounts of police who said a gunman emerged from a burning house during a confrontation with the MOVE cult and fired at them when two members of the group fled the blaze.

The firefighters say they saw no gunman and heard no shots when Ramona Africa, 30, and Birdie Africa, 13, entered a back alley and were taken into police custody, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

″We’re coming out. Don’t fire at us,″ firefighter Joseph Murray Jr. said he heard a woman yell as Ms. Africa came out, pulling the youth.

″Someone said, ’Drop your weapons. Come on out. No one’s going to hurt you,‴ he said.

Eleven members of the radical back-to-nature cult, who take the surname Africa, died in the May 13 fire, which started after police dropped a bomb on the roof of the cult’s house to break up a fortified bunker. Efforts to evict the group had led to an exchange of gunfire. The fire burned 61 row houses and left 270 people homeless.

Three police stakeout officers have said Ms. Africa emerged from the home first, followed by a man who held a rifle in one hand and dragged the boy with the other.

Officer Michael Tursi said the man fired a .22-caliber rifle in his direction before disappearing in the smoke.

The Inquirer reported Sunday that Tursi’s account differed from statements given by the three firefighters - Lt. John Vaccarelli, John F. Hamilton and Murray - who said they had a clear view of MOVE’s back yard.

″It’s impossible that there could have been any gunfire,″ said Murray, a weapons specialist in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

″We would have heard him,″ Vaccarelli said. ″I would have known if someone was shooting right off the bat. There was no shooting at all in back there and there was no man with a gun.″

The three firefighters said the blaze caused loud noises, perhaps from exploding aerosol cans, that an untrained listener might mistake for gunfire.

Murray also said the intensity of the heat undoubtedly would have prevented anyone from re-entering the house.

Birdie Africa told fire investigators May 25 that MOVE members twice were forced by police gunfire to retreat into their burning compound.

Assistant District Attorney Joseph McGill, who is prosecuting Ms. Africa on charges related to the confrontation, said he thought Tursi and his fellow officers ″honestly believed that they saw a gunman who fired at police.″

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