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Mom who survived Christmas fire: I was beaten back by smoke 'like an ocean'

By Mary Kozelka and Jessica Hopper
Rock Center

Madonna Badger, the Connecticut woman who lost her three daughters and parents in a fire on Christmas morning, remembers making the painful decision on whether to try to save her daughters or her parents.

“So I had to decide, ‘Do I go in and save them? Or do I go save my children?’ And so I ran the other way to save my children,” said Badger in an exclusive interview broadcast Thursday on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams.

“So I scrambled up to the scaffolding to get to Grace’s window and I opened that window, and the smoke that hit me, it was just the blackest, like an ocean.  There was twirling and there was the embers and all kinds of stuff in it. And I kept trying to hold my breath and put my head in and I did that, like, three or four times and I couldn’t get in. I couldn’t get in the window.”

Grace and her twin, Sarah, were 7.  Badger also lost her 9-year-old daughter, Lily, and her parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson.

The grief over her loss left Badger contemplating whether she wanted to continue living. 

“Every day I have to wake up and I have to remember. So every day I have to go through that day. And then another day starts,” Badger said.

“I’m a raw nerve, basically. You know, obviously, after six months, you know, you hope to grow the slightest bit of skin over the nerve, you know?” she said.  “I mean, getting well, I don’t know, that sounds insane.  But, I don’t know.  I think healing is the only word you can use.”

Click here to learn about the Lily Sarah Grace Fund, created in memory of the Badger girls to support the arts in underfunded public elementary schools.

Badger still refers to her lost family members in the present tense. When asked by Lauer whether she does this automatically, she said it was a mixture of conscious and subconscious. “I feel them. They’re with me, you know? They’re not here physically. But I feel them, my children and my mom and dad.”

Badger and her boyfriend, Michael Borcina, were the only two people in the house to survive the blaze. An investigation by the Stamford fire marshal concluded the fire was most likely caused by fireplace ashes that had been discarded in a bag and left inside a “mud room” in the waterfront Victorian house.

“The fire appears to have been caused by hot fireplace ash and embers which had been discarded in this area,” said Stamford Fire Marshal Barry Callahan at a press conference two days after the fire.

Making a final determination on the cause of the fire, however, was made difficult when, less than 24 hours after the fire, the wrecked home was demolished by city workers.

Earlier this month, State Attorney David Cohen announced that there would be no criminal charges filed regarding the blaze and that there was no suspicion of foul play. The state attorney’s report said that the investigation into the fire had been hampered by the “actions of some City of Stamford officials.” According to the report, the demolition of the home occurred “before the State Fire Marshal’s Office or any other expert could make an independent examination and determination.”

Badger said that she questions whether the discarded fireplace remains truly started the blaze, telling Lauer that she remembers vividly when she watched Borcina test the heat of the ashes as he placed them into a bag after the family had started a fire on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.

“The house was old,” she recalled, “and the fireplace is very shallow and so maybe, I don’t know, a foot, a foot and a half and so the wind blew ashes out onto the hearth and so we were cleaning up.

“Mike started cleaning up those ashes on the hearth, put them in a brown bag that was like a shopping bag, like a fancy, craft-paper bag.  I can see all of it in my mind’s eye, you know? It wasn’t a big cleanup.  It was just, get the stuff out of the front,” Badger said.  

When asked to clarify whether it was ashes or embers being put in the bag, Badger said, “I saw them as ashes that were in the front of the fireplace. So you know, I can’t tell you exactly what was there, because I didn’t look that carefully, quite frankly, but I know that I watched him take them with his hand, the shovel and put them into the bag and then … I watched him put his hands in the bag” to make sure that nothing was on fire. The bag was then put on top of a plastic bin inside a room in the home that the family had designated as a mud room, she added.

Badger also claimed that, to the best of her knowledge, the fire and smoke alarms in the house were in working order, but that none of the detectors went off that night. 

“It was silent. It was the scariest silence,” she said, recalling the moment she woke up choking and unable to breathe. She escaped the fire by climbing out of a front window in the home.

According to the state attorney’s report, investigators were unable to come to a “consensus as to how many smoke alarms were present, where they were located, whether they had been removed or whether they had been disabled.”

Badger argues that the swift demolition of the home did not allow a thorough investigation to be carried out.

“I think it’s a crime,” she told Lauer. “I don’t understand how it could have happened. I mean, within 24 hours, to tear down my house. No one can go in and investigate. No one can know what actually happened.”

Stamford officials told Rock Center that they could not address the specific questions raised by Badger, citing the possibility of future lawsuits.  However, Stamford’s legal counsel told the program that the city’s “actions were consistent with its obligations to protect life and property.”

Badger has filed legal notice with the city that would allow her to sue if she decides to.