Thursday, May 06, 2010

Bond Formed By MOVE Seige Lasts

Bond forged by MOVE siege lasts
Philadelphia Daily News


THESE MEN shouldn't be friends.

They are opposites. Where one's chatty and emotional, the other's more stoic.

Even physically, they're mismatched: the shorter, wiry guy and the tall, hulking one.

Yet Jim Berghaier and Charles "Reds" Mellor are best friends.

They stood by each other 25 years ago in a West Philadelphia alley, risking their lives to save 13-year-old Birdie Africa from an inferno.

They stand by each other today, still dealing with the emotional fall-out from the events of May 13, 1985, the day Philadelphia police confronted the radical group MOVE and everything went wrong. In the end, 11 people-including five children-were killed as an entire city block went up in flames.

"He's my very, very, very good friend, and he'll always be my very good friend," the more stoic Mellor said. "That's one of the most important things in life: to have a friend like Jimmy."

Mellor's 65 now. Berghaier's 60. Twenty-five years ago, they were part of the Philadelphia Police Department's stake-out unit.

The initial plan-to fill the MOVE house with pepper gas so members would leave - had failed that morning. Now, seven hours later, Mellor and Berghaier found themselves in an alley behind the MOVE house as it burned out of control. The building, Bergheiser recalled, was "rolling," with flames shooting out of the lower floors and circling to the upper ones.

"I was thinking 'No way anybody could come out of that,' " Berghaier said.

Then, over the police radios, they heard, "They're coming out! They're coming out!"

Ramona Africa emerged first. She began to walk down the alley. Then a child seemed to appear amid the smoke. Birdie Africa was barefoot and moved slowly, perhaps in shock.

It was Berghaier's son's birthday, so he had family on his mind. He called to Birdie, "Son, come over here! Son, come here!"

He watched as the boy fell over into a deep puddle and didn't move. He passed his shotgun to Mellor. "I'm going to go get the kid."

Mellor watched his partner go, and realized the only way to protect him was to stand, exposed, in the middle of the alley. He didn't hesitate.

Mellor watched his partner moving away from him. He watched Ramona Africa coming toward him. He watched the burning MOVE house, waiting for a gunman to appear. "It was very uncomfortable, but if I hadn't done it and something had happened to Jimmy, I would never have forgiven myself," Mellor said.

He ignored the bullets flying around him.

All day, Mellor said he'd heard MOVE members threatening officers over a loudspeaker, things like, "Tell your wives to make sure your insurance policies are paid up because you're not going home."

Standing there, Mellor thought of those threats. At one point, he said he pulled his wallet from his pocket to say goodbye to a picture of his kids.

"I didn't think I was going to see them again," he said, his eyes filling with tears at the memory.

During his days on the force, Mellor was known for his size and competency. But standing in that alley, and talking about it later, he said it was Berghaier who deserved the accolades that day.

"A lot of people always thought of me as being the tough guy, the one that's going to make that pinch," Mellor said. "But at the time, I was looking at Jimmy and thinking, 'That took a lot of balls to do what he just did.' "

Berghaier sloshed through the waist-deep water that had pooled from the fire hoses to reach the fallen boy. Every once in a while, he would look back at Mellor's face for reassurance that things were OK.

When Berghaier reached Birdie, he put his hands under his arms and pulled the boy through the water to a sheltered part of the alley.

"Don't shoot me," was the first thing Birdie said to him.

After pulling the child to safety, Berghaier was hailed as a hero. He didn't feel like one.

Later that day, he'd gone to a staging area where fellow officers had gathered. He'd thought they'd all swap stories, like, "I saved this one" and "I saved that one."

He was shocked that he was the only person with a story to tell.

He felt even worse when he realized that the other MOVE children had been so close to him, "in essence, a brick wall away," and he hadn't known to save them.

"I have a real hard time with the kids dying," Berghaier said. "The adults chose that. They wanted to go to war."

In the weeks and months that followed, Berghaier was alternately praised for the rescue and denounced for being part of the MOVE fiasco. Did he fire his weapon on MOVE members that day, investigators wanted to know? Had he done anything to keep members from exiting the house?

It broke him emotionally, even after a grand jury in 1988 cleared him of any wrongdoing.

He got a divorce, considered suicide, spent time in a mental ward. Through it all, Mellor was there for him, sometimes just as comic relif. During a hospital stay, Berghaier looked out his bedroom window to see Mellor walking like Frankenstein, jerkily with arms outstretched, across the grounds.

Berghaier left the Police Department after the MOVE incident. The turning point came one day when he and Mellor were out on a dangerous job. Berghaier realized he'd put himself in harm's way and he had no desire to reach for his gun.

It was Mellor who first knew Berghaier's career was over. He put his arm around his pal's shoulders and said, "You're done, Jimmy."

After that, Berghaier bounced from odd job to odd job. He's remarried now, working for a local non-profit. But even now, speaking of MOVE is an emotional experience.

"Honestly, do I think about it every day? No. But when it's brought up, it's like it happened yesterday. I've lived with it my whole life," he said. "I'll probably find peace when I pass."

For his part, Mellor felt betrayed by "the system" and angry that outsiders were second-guessing his role that day. "I'm a police officer. I deal with black and white. Right and wrong . . . I was sent to do a job, I did the job to the best of my ability."

He, too, left the department. He took another job in law enforcement, but away from Philadelphia and MOVE and the questions, spending 12 years with the Attorney General's Office SWAT team in Harrisburg.

Yet he and Berghaier stayed in touch. Their constant has been each other.

Together recently, they told stories from the old days on the "Granny Squad" when they took turns dressing like an elderly person to attract muggers. Mellor's has health issues that require him to use an oxygen tank, and Berghaier was careful to make sure his friend was comfortable at all times.

Asked why they were still friends, Mellor quipped, "I think he still owes me money."

Berghaier was more serious.

"I appreciate his loyalty," he said, teary-eyed. "He's a friend no matter what."


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