STAMFORD, Conn. » A Christmas morning fire that killed a couple and three of their grandchildren was devastating to firefighters who rushed into the engulfed home twice frantically looking for the victims before they were beaten back by the flames.
Stamford officials were offering counseling to the firefighters.
"After 37 and a half years, 38 years, on the job, you’re never prepared for anything like this," acting fire Chief Antonio Conte said Tuesday. "It’s heart-breaking. I had to re-call 70 firefighters today for debriefing, and most of them broke down."
Authorities on Tuesday described frantic, futile attempts to save the three girls and their grandparents after embers in a bag of discarded fireplace ashes started the accidental fire at the grand waterfront house, which was being renovated.
Of the seven people in the home, only two survived: the girls’ mother, a New York City fashion advertising executive; and a family friend who had worked on the home as a contractor and is believed to have placed the ashes in or outside an entryway, near the trash.
Flames quickly entered the house, spread throughout the first floor and licked upstairs, trapping the girls, the grandparents, the mother and the contractor, the city fire marshal said.
That’s when screams began to wake neighborhood residents, soon followed by the whine of fire engines.
As flames shot from the home, owner Madonna 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, said Brendan Keatley, a Stamford firefighter who was at the scene.
The family friend, Michael 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 went to the second floor but again were forced out by the blaze’s intensity.
"Not for (not) trying, that’s for sure," Conte said.
There was somebody else trying to save the girls, too — their grandfather, Lomer Johnson. One of the girls, found dead just inside a window, had been placed on a pile of books, apparently so he could reach in and grab her after he jumped out.
Instead, authorities say, Johnson fell through the roof outside the window and was found dead in the rear of the house.
He and his wife, Pauline, both of Southbury, had been visiting their daughter for the holidays. The grandmother also died in the fire along with 10-year-old Lily and 7-year-old twins Grace and Sarah.
One girl was found dead on the third floor, and the body of another was found with the grandmother’s at the bottom of the stairs leading to the third floor.
Thomas Olshanski, a spokesman for the U.S. Fire Administration, the lead federal agency for fire data collection and public fire education, said the firefighters who were sent to the blaze in Stamford likely will take it personally that they were unable to save the five family members.
"Their desire was to get that family out and they were unable to. Totally understandable — raging fire, people trapped inside. Sometimes the challenges are too big and it becomes personal at that point," he said.
"They feel this, they’re going to feel this," he added. "It is our belief that every fire can be prevented and that no one should lose their life to fire. When that happens, we try to figure out why."
Olshanski said the firefighters probably will feel a wide range of emotion. "There will be sadness, there will be grief," he said, adding how some might wonder if they could have done something more, or something different, to save the family.
It is common for firefighters in these situations, Olshanski said, to go through a critical incident stress debriefing. He said it’s important because they’re going to have to go on similar calls in the future.
Four firefighters were injured, including a captain who suffered second-degree burns on his face, Keatley said.
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., from which he retired several years ago.
Badger 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 Tuesday were unknown.
Borcina, 52, was in fair condition Tuesday at Stamford Hospital and declined to comment through a hospital spokeswoman.
He owns 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.
According to the Department of Consumer Protection, Borcina was registered for a brief time more than 10 years ago, but neither Borcina nor his company are currently registered to perform home improvement work in Connecticut.
Property records show Badger bought the five-bedroom Victorian home for $1.7 million last year. The house was situated in Shippan Point, a wealthy neighborhood that juts into Long Island Sound.
Most of the second floor was being renovated, and Badger was awaiting a final inspection, said Ernie Ogera, director of operations for the city of Stamford.
According to the city’s zoning ordinances, he said, the family should have been living only in the unrenovated sections of the house. Investigators do not yet know whether anyone was staying in renovated sections that had not been approved.
City building inspectors last examined the work in July and did not find any problems, he said.
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.
Badger previously spent time on Shelter Island, a small, exclusive community at the eastern end of New York’s Long Island. Town Supervisor James Dougherty said Tuesday that she 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.
A person answering the phone Tuesday at the Badger & Winters Group said it had no statement or comment.