Philadelphia’s health commissioner has resigned under pressure after confiding to city officials that he had authorized the cremation and disposal of remains from at least one of the Black Philadelphians who were killed when the police dropped a bomb on a rowhouse where members of the communal, antigovernment group MOVE lived in 1985.
The bomb, which the police had dropped from a helicopter, started a fire in the house, and the police ordered firefighters to let it burn. Eleven people, including five children, were killed, and more than 60 nearby homes were destroyed.
The episode has for decades been held up as an example of the city’s mistreatment of Black people, and the revelation that unidentified remains from at least one of the victims had been discarded without regard to the family’s wishes touched off fresh waves of pain and anger.
Many residents and activists believe city officials have never been held accountable for the bombing and burning of a middle-class, mostly Black neighborhood in West Philadelphia. In 1988, a grand jury cleared officials of criminal liability for the death and destruction resulting from the bombing.
The cremation was disclosed on Thursday, exactly 36 years after the bombing, by Mayor Jim Kenney, who said he had learned on Tuesday that it had been carried out in 2017, during his first term in office. He said he had apologized directly to members of the Africa family, who are still active in MOVE, and had ordered an investigation into the episode.
Mr. Kenney said he had also asked for and received the resignation of the health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, and had placed the medical examiner, Dr. Sam Gulino, on administrative leave, pending an investigation.
“We need to address this,” Mr. Kenney said at a news conference. “This has been years now that the family has been abused, and not listened to, and not taken seriously, and their wishes were never taken into account.”
Dr. Farley said he had reconsidered his actions after officials at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University recently acknowledged that anthropologists had been passing the bones of another unidentified victim of the MOVE bombing between them for the last 36 years. Those bones had also been featured in a video for an online course, “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology,” taught by a University of Pennsylvania professor and offered by Princeton.
“I believe my decision was wrong and represented a terrible error in judgment,” Dr. Farley said in a statement. “I profoundly regret making this decision without consulting the family members of the victims and I extend my deepest apologies for the pain this will cause them.”
Jamie Gauthier, a member of the Philadelphia City Council, which apologized last year for the bombing, said the cremation and disposal demonstrated “a complete lack of care and concern for Black lives.”
“These individuals lost their lives at the hands of the state and even in death were denied the dignity and respect that every human being deserves,” Ms. Gauthier said in a statement.
According to Mr. Kenney, Dr. Farley learned in 2017 of remains found by the Medical Examiner’s Office that belonged to victims of the bombing. Instead of fully identifying those remains and returning them to the family, Dr. Farley decided to cremate and dispose of them, Mr. Kenney said.
“This action lacked empathy for the victims, their family, and the deep pain that the MOVE bombing has brought to our city for nearly four decades,” Mr. Kenney said in a statement.
A physician trained in pediatrics and epidemiology, Dr. Farley was appointed Philadelphia’s health commissioner in 2016. He was New York City’s health commissioner from 2009 to 2014.
Dr. Farley said that Dr. Gulino had informed him in early 2017 that, among some personal effects of the dead, a box had been found that contained materials related to autopsies from the MOVE bombing. In the box, he said, were bones and bone fragments, presumably from one or more of the victims.
Under the standard procedure for autopsies in the Medical Examiner’s Office, some specimens are kept for investigations before they are released to next of kin, Dr. Farley said. But after investigations are complete, these specimens are discarded, without notifying anyone, he said.
“Believing that investigations related to the MOVE bombing had been completed more than 30 years earlier, and not wanting to cause more anguish for the families of the victims, I authorized Dr. Gulino to follow this procedure and dispose of the bones and bone fragments,” Dr. Farley said. “I made this decision on my own, without notifying or consulting anyone in the Managing Director’s office or the Mayor’s office, and I take full responsibility for it.”
Dr. Gulino did not immediately respond to messages on Thursday.
Mike Africa Jr., an activist, writer and member of MOVE who was 6 when the bomb was dropped, said the cremation and disposal of the remains was “jolting” but not shocking, given what he said was the city’s history of mistreating MOVE members.
“You never get clear of it,” Mr. Africa said. “As soon as you think it’s over or about to subside, you’ve got some other stuff that pops right in your face. Everybody who was involved has to be held accountable.”
Mr. Kenney said the city had hired a law firm to investigate, and he promised the Africa family “full transparency” in the investigation.
“I cannot imagine that it means much, but I also offer a formal apology to the Africa family and members of the MOVE on behalf of the City of Philadelphia, not just for this disgraceful incident, but also for how administration after administration has failed to atone for the heinous act on May 13, 1985 and continues to dishonor the victims,” Mr. Kenney said. “I am profoundly sorry for the incredible pain, harm, and loss caused by that horrific day.”