STAMFORD, Conn. (CBSNewYork) — A fire fully engulfed a home on Christmas morning. A mother made it out alive, but her three kids and two parents, tragically, did not.
The children, a 9-year-old and 7-year-old twins, were seen in a photo obtained by CBS 2 with their grandparents. Their grandfather was dressed as Santa Claus.
On Monday the old Victorian home they could not escape was no longer standing, now a pile of rubble after demolition teams tore it down. Investigators are still trying to figure out how the fire started.
WCBS 880 Connecticut Bureau Chief Fran Schneidau On The Story
Flowers, stuffed animals and a card sat by the foot of the Christmas cataclysm — five lives lost in the once-imposing 19th century home facing Long Island Sound.
“As it built you could look up and see the flames,” Tom Olson told CBS 2’s Sean Hennessey on Monday night.
Olson was still trying to wrap his mind around the horror of what happened to his neighbors.
“I can’t imagine waking up one day and having my children and my parents dead in one swoop like that. I don’t think I even understand the depth of that pain,” Olson said.
“Why? Why do these things happen?” somber neighbor Arlene Holko wondered aloud.
Madonna Badger lost her three children and both parents in the blaze. The deputy chief in charge of the scene said the frantic mother and her friend, Michael Borcina, were trying desperately to rescue the trapped victims when firefighters arrived. CBS 2’s Lou Young spoke with him by phone on Monday afternoon.
“They were trying to get back in the building. Our engine crews had to take them from the roof so we could start rescue operations. Our crews made it into the building and we searched, but, unfortunately, the people were not where we thought they were going to be,” Stamford Fire Deputy Chief Bill Smith said.
CBS 2 News has learned investigators are focusing on the fireplace as a likely cause. A source told Hennessey that Badger told investigators she and Borcina took coals out of the fireplace as a way to have the fire die down quicker. Those coals, it’s believed, may have sparked the flames.
The bodies of the girls and their grandparents were found on the upper floors. It appears 71-year-old Lomer Johnson, who often worked as a Santa Claus this time of year, was trying to lead one of his granddaughters to safety at a third-floor window when they simply ran out of time.
“He had actually gone through the window. He was on a flat roof that they had made like a rain roof out of it. He succumbed right there, and we found a child inside the window covered in debris,” Stamford Fire Acting Chief Antonio Conte said.
The house was a local treasure as seen from year-old real estate photos. Badger was in the process of renovating it. Borcina, the other survivor of the blaze, was doing that work for her.
Becki Andersen’s parents sold the house to Badger.
“She loved it. That’s what made it so wonderful for us. She loved it as much as we did,” Andersen said.
Now it’s difficult for anyone to contain their horror at what has happened.
“The house is just wood and glass. It’s just a house. I feel for Madonna and the children and her parents. It’s a tragedy. It’s heartbreaking,” Andersen said.
“I guess you always do personalize and you think in terms could it happen to me? Could it happen to my us?” neighbor Stan Miller said.
That it did happen has neighbors stunned and sickened.
“It’s one of the worst tragedies that I’ve heard of in a long time,” John DiBacca said.
As CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reports, Lomer and Pauline Johnson had lived in the Heritage Village retirement community in Southbury.
They were only there for about two years, but that was was plenty long enough to make friends, and make an impression as a loving couple who lived for their children and grandchildren.
Leo Ditkoff told Aiello that losing his neighbors has cast a terrible pall on the holiday season.
“I just remember saying ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.’ What a horrible way to die. It really shook me up,” Ditkoff said.
Neighbor Barbara Jeffrey reflected on what she saw of Lomer and Pauline.
“They were here a lot, the three girls. Yeah, they had them here a lot. And they were at Madonna’s quite a bit, too,” Jeffrey said.
Badger, 47, is a well-known advertising executive for the fashion industry. She helped create the famed “Marky Mark” ads for Calvin Klein underwear, featuring actor and model Mark Wahlberg.
Neighbors said Badger’s parents, the Johnsons, were friendly and full of life. They loved Christmas and decorated extensively to celebrate the season.
“Pauline was very outgoing, very vivacious, loving, a great friend,” Jeffrey said.
Lomer Johnson grew a lush beard after retiring and went to work as a Santa for hire. He spent Dec. 24 delighting children at the flagship Saks Fifth Avenue store in Midtown.
“That nice white beard, and that ‘ho ho ho’ face that he has, I told him you’d make a great a Santa Claus. He said ‘ho ho ho, that’s what I do!’” Ditkoff said.
The Johnsons often brought their granddaughters to a Southbury Friendly’s restaurant, where Lomer Johnson always asked for the same booth and the same waitress.
“I always used to joke with him, say you always look like Santa all year round. He would smile, always kind, always pleased. Very nice man, very nice family,” restaurant manager Aristotel Zoto said.
Waitress Robin McKenna said she often served the couple at a nearby diner.
“No … just that I’m going to miss them. You know some people are a fixture here. You know what I mean, when you’re used to seeing them all the time?” McKenna told CBS 2’s Don Dahler.
Let us know your thoughts on this tragedy in the comments section below.