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Officials: 2 major mistakes made in Stamford fire

December 29, 2011 4:17:50 AM PST
The Christmas morning fire that killed a couple and their three grandchildren in Connecticut has been devastating to firefighters who rushed into the home twice frantically looking for the victims before flames beat them back.

Stamford officials are now offering counseling to the firefighters.

Authorities on Tuesday described the frantic, futile attempts to save the girls and their grandparents after embers in a bag of discarded fireplace ashes started the accidental fire at the grand waterfront house in Stamford.

Of the seven people in the home, there were only two survivors: the girls' mother, New York City fashion advertising executive Madonna Badger; and a family friend, Michael Borcina, who had worked on the house as a contractor and is believed to have placed the ashes in or outside an entryway, near the trash.

Killed were grandparents Lomer and Pauline Johnson, 10-year-old Lily and 7-year-old twins Grace and Sarah. The Medical Examiner ruled that the four females died of smoke inhalation, while Lomer Johnson died of blunt head and neck trauma.

Madonna Badger and Borcina had just finished wrapping Christmas presents around 3 a.m. and headed to bed after extinguishing the fire. That's when they decided to take the ashes and put them near a mudroom at the back of the home.

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Officials say there were two major mistakes made in the fire. The first was the misplaced ashes. The second was that the home did not have working smoke detectors. Details also emerged about the plight of the victims. Two of the young girls who died nearly made it out of the house before they apparently ran back upstairs.

Firefighters described the grandfather's heroic rescue attempt, putting one granddaughter on a stack of books while he tried to get her out a window.

"He guided her to the window that he went through," Stamford Fire Chief Antonio Conte said. "When he stepped through that window, his life ended. It looks like he fell face forward, because that's the position found him in."

Both Badger and her companion also tried saving the children, but apparently lost them in the smoke and confusion.

As flames shot from the home, Badger climbed out a window onto scaffolding, screaming for her children and pointing to the third floor. Firefighters used a ladder and construction scaffolding outside the house to reach the third floor, but heat and poor visibility in a hallway turned them back.

Borcina told firefighters on the ground that he had taken two girls to the second floor, but that they got separated because of the heat. Firefighters then returned to the second floor but again were forced out by the blaze's intensity.

"The male occupant had told us that he had led two girls downstairs, so now they were on the second floor," Conte said. "But the heat drove them to get separated from the male occupant. And it looks like one went back upstairs, and another one was found with the grandmother at the bottom of the stairwell between the second and third floor."

Officials believe Badger knows most of what officials want to know about the events leading up to the fire, but they're being patient about getting the information they need.

"Mrs. Badger lost her three children and her two parents," Stamford Mayor Michael Pavia said. "When we made the initial contact with Mrs. Badger, the last thing thing on our minds to talk to her about was if her building permit was valid or if her smoke detectors were working."

Because the ongoing renovations, inspectors are questioning if the building was even fit to be lived in.

"They should not have been in the home unless they had a certificate of approval," Stamford director of operations Ernie Orgera said.

Borcina is still in the hospital, but spoke to the New York Post. He said he and Badger will make it through this, and that they are taking care of themselves both spiritually and physically.

An uncle of the three girls killed said Wednesday that family members are devastated by the tragedy but comforted by each other and an outpouring of public sympathy.

Campbell Badger said that his brother Matthew Badger was devoted to his daughters. He says their family appreciates the prayers and support it has received.

"Matthew is devastated," Campbell Badger said Wednesday. "He's doing as best as can be expected under the circumstances."

Matthew Badger hasn't commented publicly since the fire.

Matthew Badger and Madonna Badge, are divorcing, and he was not at the home when it was engulfed by flames.

Campbell Badger said his nieces were "wonderful, delightful energetic children."

"They were loved tremendously by their mother and their father, who always put their kids first," he said.

He said his brother, a television commercial director who lives in New York, was involved in all aspects of his daughters' lives and played all types of games and activities with them, including soccer, rollerblading and painting.

He said the Johnson and Badger families are grateful for the public support, which has included floral bouquets, stuffed animals and candles left by passers-by at the site of the torn-down Victorian home.

"We are really touched," he said. "Everyone wants to help in any way they can. We feel it, and it's remarkable."

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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