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Firefighters haunted by Connecticut mother's wail for 'my babies'

December 29, 2011 |  7:00 am

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Firefighters who tried to rescue three girls from a Christmas morning inferno told counselors this week that they're haunted by the harrowing cries of the girls' mother as she watched flames engulf her home with her children and parents trapped inside.

"My whole life is in there," advertising executive Madonna Badger reportedly screamed as Stamford, Conn., firefighters fought the flames shooting out of the windows of her three-story home facing Long Island Sound.

"My babies, by babies," she wailed.

In an interview with the New York Daily News, Assistant Fire Chief Peter Brown, a 25-year veteran with the department, said its members can't shake the agony of the mother's cries. "The one thing they can't get out of their minds is her screaming. That voice will stay with them for as long as they live."

The Connecticut medical examiner's office ruled Wednesday that smoke inhalation killed Badger's daughters, 9-year-old Lily and 7-year-old twins Sarah and Grace, as well as Badger's mother, Pauline Johnson.

Lomer Johnson, Pauline’s husband and the girls’ grandfather, died primarily of blunt head and neck trauma. It is believed that Johnson fell through a window attempting to save one of his granddaughters.

Earlier in the week, Stamford fire officials said that embers from the home's fireplace -- which had been left in a trash can -- ignited a blaze that then spread through the house. Badger, 47, and her companion, Michael Borcina, a contractor whose company was overseeing the renovation of the Victorian house, had been wrapping presents in front of the fireplace until 3 a.m., according to media accounts.

Borcina apparently put the embers in a bag to cool, sparking the blaze, which became too fierce for firefighters to rescue the children and their grandparents, officials said.

Although a modern safety and fire-detecting system was being installed, officials said, there was no evidence that it was in use. The fire trapped the children and their grandparents on the upper floors; Badger and Borcina tried to rescue them before firefighters arrived about 5 a.m., but their efforts proved futile.

Borcina, 52, who was injured while trying to reenter the house, told reporters shortly before his release from Stamford hospital Wednesday: "It was a tragedy. It's really hard."

All but two of the 70 members of the Stamford Fire Department who fought the fire had a six-hour session this week with peer counselors from the New York City Fire Department to help them cope with the trauma. "They vented," said Assistant Chief Brown. "They listened. It was good for them."

One fire captain, who was badly burned, apparently resisted when the fire chief ordered him not to go back into the house. Chief Antonio Conte told The News that the captain insisted: "Please let me go back. I need to find those children." The chief said he refused, telling him "he was done."

Abby Ballin, the girlfriend of the children's father, Matthew Badger, portrayed the family with affection in an email interview Wednesday with the Wall Street Journal. Matthew and Madonna Badger were separated, but they always "put their children first and did everything in their power to give them the best lives conceivable," Ballin said.

"Their home was always filled with music and colorful art could be seen everywhere. Their spirits will live on forever and ever in the hearts of their family and loved ones... there are no words to express how marvelous they are."

Ballin also provided the Journal with a photograph she took Dec. 22 of a smiling Matthew Badger, holding a teddy bear and flanked by this three daughters.

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 -- Geraldine Baum in New York

Photo: Stamford, Conn., firefighter Nick Tamburro pays respects outside the home of Madonna Badger. The home was destroyed by a fire on Christmas morning. Firefighters went into the house twice trying to rescue the victims, but were forced out by the blaze's intensity. Credit: Jessica Hill/Associated Press

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