Details continue to emerge about the fire that killed five people and destroyed the Stamford, Conn. home of fashion branding executive Madonna Badger, and the latest is that fire officials confirmed that fireplace embers were improperly disposed of inside the house a couple hours before the fire broke out. Badger, who is best known for creating those Calvin Klein underwear ads with Mark Wahlberg has reportedly been shielded from most of the details about the fire that killed her parents and children. But as fire officials become more sure of what happened, they're releasing information to the press, and a narrative is beginning to form. We can't give a real step-by-step account of the events in the tragedy early Christmas morning because one doesn't exist yet, but we can put the details we're learning in rough chronological order, and in doing so, try to understand better what happened.
A tranquil scene: Badger and her boyfriend, Michael Borcina, stayed up until about 3 a.m. wrapping presents as a Yule log burned on the hearth, the New York Daily News reported. The acting Stamford fire chief, Antonio Conte, told reporters on Tuesday that the fire started from some ashes that had been left near a first-floor entryway, the Associated Press reported. The New York Post quoted Conte's description of the ash disposal:
"It's been determined that sometime after 3:00[am local time], they removed hot fireplace ash and took it outside," said Barry Callahan, Chief Fire Marshal for the city of Stamford.
Callahan told reporters at a news conference that the ashes and embers were brought to an area in the rear of the home that contained a mudroom and trash enclosure. The family went to bed between 3 am and 3:30 am, and officials received the first call reporting the blaze at 4:52 am.
The waterfront Victorian house, built in 1895, predates the Stamford requirement that single-family homes built after 1976 be equipped with smoke detectors. Borcina, a contractor, was renovating the place, and it would have had smoke detectors once he finished. According to the AP, "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."
Early morning panic: The calls from neighbors reporting a fire started coming in at about 4:50 a.m. Stamford officials released the 911 recordings on Tuesday, in which neighbors sound terrified, to the New York Daily News reported some of the transcripts:
“There’s a huge fire at the house next door to us,” an anguished female neighbor tells the 911 operator. “The whole house is on fire. There’s a woman and three kids ... It’s the house next door, a major fire, and there’s three kids and a woman.”
After her call cuts off, the woman redials with a breathless last request: “Please come quickly.”
A second woman, after hearing firefighters were on the way, asked, “Is everyone okay?”
A male caller barely managed to get out, "It's on Suppan Point. It's a fire," before he was assured that the Fire Department was en route.
By the time firefighters got there, Badger had escaped to the roof, where she tried to direct them to where the children were sleeping. A firefighter told the AP that "Two sides of the structure were walls of flame," and while firefighters made it in briefly, they couldn't find the children. The AP writes: "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."
Heroic attempts: Perhaps most heartbreaking are the details about family members trying to rescue the children, especially Badger's father, who died just inches from one of the children whom he was apparently trying to save. The 71-year-old grandfather, who grew his beard out to play Santa Claus at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, was found on a flat part of the roof, just on the other side of a window from one of his granddaughters, who he had either been leading out or trying to get in to retrieve, the reports say. "She was right next to him" when they both died, Conte told the Post. "She had been placed on a pile of books, so he could reach in and grab her," the AP reported.
Borcina also tried to shepherd the children out of the house, the AP reports:
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.
The Daily News reports that "Badger kept fighting to get inside the waterfront death house until she was finally subdued and loaded on a stretcher," and the Post reports that as she was carried from the scene she sobbed, "my whole life is in there."
Firefighters injured: "Four firefighters were injured as they searched for the victims, including a captain who suffered second-degree burns on his face," the AP reported. One emergency worker told the Daily News, "that a fire captain who risked his life by jumping through a window into the burning house was rescued by colleagues." Beyond the physical injuries, the fire department has made counselors available to the firefighters, most of whom haven't dealt with a multiple casualty incident before.
Smoldering aftermath: On Monday, with the fire out and the investigations complete, the house was razed. Badger has been released from a local hospital, the AP reports, and "her whereabouts are unknown." Borcina is at Stamford hospital, listed in fair condition. The Daily News spoke to Badger's brother, Wade Johnson:
Madonna Badger was “as devastated as you could imagine,” Wade Johnson said. “Like any mother and child would be. She’s largely unaware of many of the details ... She’s resting.”
No funeral arrangements were announced, but the grandfather, Lomer Johnson, and grandmother, Pauline Johnson, will be buried in Newfoundland, Canada, Wade Johnson said.
The other victims were 10-year-old Lily Badger and her twin sisters, 7-year-old Sarah and Grace.