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Investigators: Embers Started Christmas Day Fire

STAMFORD, Conn. — The deadly blaze that took the lives of five people Christmas morning on Shippan Avenue was caused by the improper disposal of fireplace embers, Barry Callahan, chief fire marshal for Stamford, said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

Sometime after 3 a.m., embers from the fireplace were put into a bag, which was placed in the rear of the house, either near a mudroom or trash area, Callahan said. The initial investigation indicates the fire appears to have been “accidental in nature,” he said.

Stamford Fire & Rescue was called to the large Victorian-style home in Shippan just before 5 a.m. and directed by homeowner Madonna Badger to the third floor, where her three children were. She had made it to a scaffold outside of the house, Acting Fire Chief Antonio Conte said.

The heat and fire were too strong, and firefighters had to withdraw, he said.

They later tried to go back into the second floor when Michael Borcina, an occupant of the house that night, said he had led two of the girls down before they panicked and ran from him. But the firefighters were unable to find the children, Conte said. It was unclear whether Borcina was living in the home full time.

“You can never be prepared for something like this,” Conte said of the fire.

Badger and Borcina were taken to Stamford Hospital by emergency responders. Badger has been released, but Borcina remains hospitalized in fair condition.

Badger’s parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson, and her three daughters, Lilly, 10, and twins Sarah and Grace, 7, died in the fire. Lomer Johnson had made it out with Borcina and Badger. But he died trying to save one of the girls, whose body was found next to a window beside the body of her grandfather, Conte said.

One of the girls was found with Pauline Johnson by the staircase. The other had run back to the third floor, Conte said.

Investigators will follow up with Badger to learn more about the condition of the house before the fire, such as whether smoke detectors had been installed and whether they were working. The house was undergoing renovations and had passed all previous inspections, said Ernie Orgera , the city's director of operations. The most recent inspection had been in July, he said.

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