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 described the cause as “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 ruled out.
Neighbors 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 the Christmas morning fire. Her parents, who were visiting for the holidays, and her three daughters — 7-year-old twins and a 10-year-old — were killed.
Badger’s father, Lomer Johnson, had a long career as a safety chief at Louisville, Ky.-based liquor maker Brown-Forman Corp., where he retired from his job as safety and security director several years ago. He worked as a department store Santa Claus this season.
“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 was a contractor working on the home, police said. He was identified by the Stamford Advocate newspaper as Michael Borcina.
The severely damaged $1.7 million 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.
He told WFSB-TV that bodies were found on the second and third floors and on the stairway between the floors.
Firefighters knew there were people trapped in the home but could not get to them because the flames were too large and the heat too intense, officials have 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 most recently worked as a Santa this year at the flagship store of Saks Fifth Avenue 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 long career 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 Monday were unknown.
Borcina was hospitalized Tuesday in stable condition, a nursing supervisor said.
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.