Officials: Deadly Connecticut fire caused by old fireplace embers

Brayden Davis, 10, right, stands by as his mother, Jeanne Davis, and brother Rowan Davis, 7, lay down flowers Monday outside the house where a fire left five people dead on Christmas Day, in Stamford, Conn. The Davises live in the neighborhood but did not know the family who lived in the house. (tina fineberg ~ Associated Press)

STAMFORD, Conn. -- A Christmas morning fire that killed a couple and three of their grandchildren was accidentally started by old 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.

Officials on Tuesday 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 able to tell firefighters which bedrooms they were in.

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. Bodies were found on the second and third floors, one of them in a hallway, he said.

Badger's father, Lomer Johnson, was found outside, on the roof of a small porch off a bedroom, Pavia said. "It appears that he either was trying to get to his granddaughter from the outside or that he was leading his granddaughter out," Pavia 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 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 sky diving 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.