STAMFORD, Conn. — A Christmas Day fire that killed three children and their grandparents was a tragic accident related to a fireplace in the home, not the result of foul play, the mayor said Tuesday.
Investigators were expected to reveal the cause of the fire later Tuesday, but Stamford Mayor Michael Pavia told The Associated Press that the cause was “fireplace-related.” He could not provide more details.
“The preliminary information is it was just a tragic accident,” he said, adding that foul play had been definitively ruled out.
Neighbours said they were awakened by screams shortly before 5 a.m. Sunday and rushed outside to help but could do nothing as flames devoured the large Victorian home.
The home’s owner, New York advertising executive Madonna Badger, and a male acquaintance escaped. Her parents, who were visiting for the holidays, and her three daughters — 7-year-old twins and a 10-year-old — were killed.
Pavia said Badger’s father, Lomer Johnson, was found outside, on the roof of a small porch off a bedroom.
“It appears that he either was trying to get to his granddaughter from the outside or that he was leading his granddaughter out,” he said.
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.
“He spent his career trying to keep others safe,” retired Brown-Forman executive Robert Holmes Jr. said Monday in a telephone interview. “And the irony is that he dies in a fire.”
The other victims were Badger’s mother, Pauline Johnson, and daughters, 10-year-old Lily and twins Grace and Sarah. The Johnsons lived in Southbury, about 45 miles northeast of Stamford.
The acquaintance, Michael Borcina, was 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.
Pavia said a rescue team did get into the house, but could not stay long because the blaze was so intense and spread so quickly. He said police and firefighters were crying at the scene.
“Clearly it was an unbearable situation,” Pavia said.
Bill Avalos, a retired captain at the Stamford Fire Department, said the department is now arranging crisis intervention for the firefighters who battled the blaze.
“We have a younger department. We want them to stay healthy,” he said. “They did everything they could do to have a better outcome.”
Lomer Johnson worked as a Santa this year at Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store in Manhattan, a store spokeswoman said.
“Mr. Johnson was Saks Fifth Avenue’s beloved Santa, and we are heartbroken about this terrible tragedy,” spokeswoman Julia Bently said in a statement.
Holmes, who worked with Johnson for more than a decade at Brown-Forman, remembered his co-worker as a big man with white hair and a commanding presence.
“He was a man of not a lot of words, but when Lomer spoke or gave his opinion, it was always well thought-out,” Holmes said.
He said he was a bit surprised that the longtime security chief had become a department store Santa but added, “I could see Lomer doing something like that because Lomer had a passion for people.”
During Johnson’s tenure with Brown-Forman, whose many brands include Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and Southern Comfort, he was responsible for security and safety at the company’s headquarters and production plants. His responsibilities included helping plan fire drills, Holmes said.
“He spent his life as a safety professional making sure our facilities were safe from fire,” Holmes said. “And in the event there was a fire, that people knew what to do in terms of getting out of the buildings.”
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 are 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 neighbourhood 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.