Stamford, Connecticut officials shared details about the fatal Christmas Day house fire that claimed the lives of three young girls and their grandparents: It seems that still-smoldering embers from a Yule log were placed in a bag and left by the house, and those embers caused the blaze that consumed much of the three-story home. Officials ruled out foul play and Fire Marshal Barry Callahan said, "The origin was determined to be on the first floor rear corner of the house in the immediate area of a mudroom and trash bin enclosure."
The home, a $1.725 million Victorian with views of Long Island Sound, was bought by NYC fashion branding executive Madonna Badger last year and she had initiated extensive renovations for the home, which she shared with her three young daughters, Lily, 9 and twins Grace and Sarah, 7. On Christmas Eve, Badger, her daughters, her parents and family friend (also referred to as her boyfriend), the home's contractor, Michael Borcina, were celebrating the holiday; authorities say that after 3 a.m., Borcina emptied embers from the fireplace and placed them in the bag. According to the NY Times:
Less than two hours later, firefighters were called to the scene. The first ladder crew found Ms. Badger on a second-floor scaffold, which had been placed there as part of continuing renovations. As the crew helped her down, Ms. Badger directed firefighters to the third floor, where she said her children were sleeping, according to the Stamford fire chief, Antonio J. Conte.
Mr. Borcina told fire officials he had tried to flee with two of the girls. But, perhaps in the chaos of the smoke and flames, the girls seem to have panicked and turned around, Chief Conte said. One of the girls ran back upstairs, and the other was found with her grandmother on the stairs between the second and third floors.
Badger's father, Lomer Johnson, a retired safety director who had been the Saks Fifth Avenue Santa Claus this Christmas, apparently tried to get one of his granddaughters out, but died in the process. The Stamford Advocate has the heartwrenching details:
Conte said Johnson made a "valiant effort" to bring the girl out of a window in the rear of home, but Johnson, 71, a former safety chief at a Kentucky liquor company, was overwhelmed by the intense blaze and died along with his granddaughters and 69-year-old wife Pauline.
Johnson was able to stack some books by the window for his granddaughter to step on, but when he fell onto the roof face first where he was found later by firefighters, he perished. "When he stepped through that window his life ended," Conte said. One of the girls was found on the stack of books.
Johnson, his wife Pauline, and the three girls died from smoke inhalation. Badger and Borcina survived—Badger was rescued from second-floor scaffolding, where she had been trying to reach her daughters, and Borcina reportedly had to be restrained by firefighters from re-entering the home, which was entirely on fire. The Post has a graphic showing the home and what apparently happened during the fire.
City officials also revealed that the family technically should not have been residing in the house, because the renovated parts of the home (including much of the second floor) had not been approved for final occupancy. But they stressed that the work done by Borcina—the most recent inspections were in June—appeared to be proper. Stamford Mayor Michael Pavia added that Badger had recently "changed the building permit to include plans for the installation of a new security alarm and fire and smoke detection system," but it did not appear that the hard-wired system was activated and it was unclear whether the home had any battery-operated smoke detectors.
Borcina spoke to the Post from his hospital room and said, "We’re all going to be OK." The Post adds, "Borcino, his voice weak and his conversation interrupted by coughs, said he and Badger 'need and have the love and support of our friends... They are surrounding us and taking care of us. I’m going to be OK.'.. She’s going to be OK. We’re all going to be OK. We’re taking care of ourselves physically and spiritually."
Badger was separated from her husband, Manhattan resident Matthew Badger, and had initiated divorce proceedings. No funeral arrangements have been announced for their daughters; Lomer and Pauline Johnson will be buried in Canada. The home was torn down, because it was structurally unsafe.