STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) — A Christmas morning fire that killed a couple and three of their grandchildren was accidentally started by fireplace embers that had been discarded near a first-floor entryway, officials said Tuesday.
The officials also said it wasn't clear if the home had working smoke detectors. Stamford Mayor Michael Pavia called the fire a "tragic accident," not the result of foul play.
Sometime between 3 a.m. and 3:30 a.m., a friend staying in the home put fireplace ashes in a bag and left it either in or outside a mudroom and trash enclosure attached to the rear of the house, said Barry Callahan, Stamford's fire marshal. The fire was reported just after 4:40 a.m.
"The fire entered the house quickly and spread throughout the first floor and up two interior vertical openings, trapping the occupants on the upper floors," Callahan said.
Officials described a frantic scene after rescuers arrived early Sunday.
Neighbors said they were awakened by screams shortly before 5 a.m. and rushed outside to help but could do nothing as flames devoured the large Victorian home.
Stamford acting Fire Chief Antonio Conte said the children's mother, Madonna Badger, had climbed out a window onto scaffolding and then a flat roof. She was screaming for her children and pointed firefighters to the third floor.
Firefighters climbed to the third floor twice, but the heat and flames were too intense and the children were not where they thought they would be, he said.
The friend of Badger's who had been staying in the home told investigators he actually had led two of the girls downstairs, but heat from the flames separated them, Conte said. One apparently went back upstairs and another one was found with her grandmother at the bottom of the stairwell between the second and third floors, he said.
Badger's father, Lomer Johnson, was found outside. It appears he had been planning to help one of the girls get out; she had been placed on a pile of books, so he could reach in and grab her, officials said.
"When he went out the window, that's when he succumbed and she died just inside the window," Conte said.
Flames were shooting out of the house when firefighters arrived, said Brendan Keatley, a Stamford firefighter who was at the scene and president of the local firefighters union.
"Two sides of the structure were walls of flame," Keatley said.
Firefighters used a ladder and construction scaffolding outside the house to reach the third floor, but they ran into extreme heat and poor visibility in a hallway, Keatley said. Four firefighters were injured as they searched for the victims, including a captain who suffered second-degree burns on his face, Keatley said.
Fighting the fire took a physical and an emotional toll, he said, and counselors were being made available to firefighters.
"We are devastated, just like everybody else is devastated," Keatley said Tuesday.
Badger, a New York advertising executive who owned the home, and her male acquaintance escaped. Her parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson, who were visiting for the holidays, were killed, as were her three daughters — 10-year-old Lily and 7-year-old twins Grace and Sarah.
The home's second floor was being renovated and Badger was awaiting a final inspection before she could get a final certificate of approval, said Ernie Ogera, director of operations for the city of Stamford.
There were plans for hard-wired smoke alarms, but they had not been hooked up, Ogera said. Officials did not know whether battery-operated ones were being used.
The Johnsons lived in Southbury, about 45 miles northeast of Stamford. Lomer Johnson had worked as a department store Santa Claus this season after a long career as a safety chief at Louisville, Ky.-based liquor maker Brown-Forman Corp., which he retired from several years ago.
The acquaintance who escaped, Michael Borcina, is a contractor who had done work on the home.
The severely damaged Victorian house situated along the Connecticut shoreline was torn down Monday after the buildings department determined it was unsafe and ordered it razed, Stamford fire Chief Antonio Conte said.
Badger, an ad executive in the fashion industry, is the founder of New York-based Badger & Winters Group. She was treated at a hospital and was discharged by Sunday evening, a hospital supervisor said. Her whereabouts were unknown.
A person answering the phone Tuesday at the Badger & Winters Group said it had no statement or comment.
Borcina was listed in fair condition Tuesday at Stamford Hospital, meaning his vital signs were normal but he may be uncomfortable. He declined to comment through a hospital spokeswoman.
Borcina, 52, of New York City, is the owner of Tiberias Construction Inc., which renovates expensive homes and businesses. The company's projects have included a Donna Karan store and artist Alex Beard's studio, both in New York City, and the White House Christmas wishing tree, according to the construction firm's website.
Borcina and Badger are friends on Facebook, and he said on his Facebook page that he enjoys skydiving and scuba diving.
Property records show Badger bought the five-bedroom, waterfront home for $1.7 million last year. The house was situated in Shippan Point, a wealthy neighborhood that juts into Long Island Sound.
The lot where the house stood was covered with charred debris and cordoned off by police with tape on Monday. Passers-by left floral bouquets, stuffed animals and candles.
Badger previously spent time on Shelter Island, a small, exclusive community at the eastern end of Long Island, N.Y. Town Supervisor James Dougherty said Tuesday that Madonna Badger served a few years ago on the town's deer and tick committee, which oversees the town's program to maintain healthy deer while eliminating tick-borne diseases.
Associated Press writers Stephen Singer and Dave Collins in Hartford, Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Ky., and Tom Hays in New York contributed to this report.