Stamford, Conn., mourns as details of fatal Christmas fire emerge [updated]
This time it was a waterfront community in southern Connecticut that was felled by loss, and embers from a fireplace may be the culprit. The embers had apparently been left in a container inside the house after the mother finished wrapping gifts for her three children.
Neighbors congregated near the remains of the smoldering house throughout Christmas Day and the day after, one neighbor told the Los Angeles Times; some left flowers near the still-intact mailbox. Late Monday, the structure was completely torn down by the fire department because it was determined to be unsafe, according to the Associated Press.
Investigators suspect that the fire started early Christmas morning in the front hall of the old house facing Long Island Sound in tony Shippan Point in Stamford, Conn., a New York suburb.
The home's owner, Madonna Badger, an advertising executive, and a friend, Michael Borcina, the contractor who had been helping renovate the home, had spent the evening wrapping presents in front of the fire. They then loaded the fire's embers into a container and left the container in the front hall, according to the New York Daily News.
Badger, 47, and Borcina survived the fast-moving fire. But Badger's parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson, who were to celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary Monday, and Badger's three daughters, Lily, 10, and 7-year-old twins Sarah and Grace, died.
''It is a terrible, terrible day for the city of Stamford,'' Mayor Michael Pavia said at a news briefing Sunday morning.
''There probably has not been a worse Christmas day in the city of Stamford.''
At the same news briefing, the city's fire chief teared up describing the difficulty of witnessing so much death in one family in one day.
The tragedy only became more heart-breaking as witnesses and rescue workers described the scene of the early morning fire to reporters. Among the details was the neighborhood filling with the sounds of Badger and Borcina screaming for help and then dozens of fire sirens racing to the home.
Badger and her children lived in the crumbling Victorian that she had bought about a year ago for $1.75 million. The children's father lives in New York City, according to news reports, and was rushed to Stamford on Christmas morning.
When emergency workers arrived early Sunday morning, they found Badger and Borcina trying to rescue her parents and the children, who were trapped on the upper floors of the three-story home. A rescue worker told the New York Daily News that Badger had to be prevented from trying to climb into the burning house. She was then loaded on a stretcher and taken to a hospital for observation, the worker said. Badger was later released.
Lomer Johnson, 71, apparently died trying to rescue one of his granddaughters. His body was found on the roof buried under rubble near a window; inside the window was the body of one of the girls.
"He died on the outside, and she died on the inside," Stamford Fire Chief Antonio Conte told the New York Daily News on Monday. "She was right next to him."
Johnson had spent the last day of his life playing Santa Claus and distributing candy canes at Saks Fifth Avenue's flagship store in Manhattan.
Johnson had retired as a safety director 11 years ago, and his wife had run an electrical contracting company in Kentucky; they moved to Connecticut in recent years to be closer to their grandchildren. That's also when Johnson's oldest granddaughter Lily began encouraging him to grow a beard and play Santa. He began advertising on Gigmaster.com as "Happy Santa."
"I have enjoyed it more than any job I've ever had," Johnson wrote on a the website promoting his role as the bearded one.
"We are heartbroken about this terrible tragedy,' Saks Fifth Avenue said in a statement.
Helpless neighbors were similarly saddened. "All we can think about is that poor mother trying to go on," a neighbor said. "Horrible."
-- Geraldine Baum
Photo: Madonna Badger in 1998. Credit: Jim Cooper / Associated Press