The Christmas morning fire at a Connecticut home that killed three girls and their grandparents was started by fireplace embers that had been cleared out of the fireplace and put in either a mud room attached to the house or a trash enclosure next to it, fire officials said today.
It is unclear whether there were smoke alarms in the house, which was in the middle of an extensive renovation.
Officials said the family was allowed to live in the house during the construction, but that the second floor should not have been occupied since that was the area being renovated. However, Stamford Chief Fire Marshal Barry Callahan said it "appears the second floor was occupied."
Officials described the harrowing last moments of those trapped by the flames, including the panic of the children and the adults' heroic and heartbreaking attempts to rescue them.
When firefighters arrived, the girls' mother Madonna Badger was on a second-floor scaffolding frantically trying to gain access to the house.
Firefighters helped her down and she told them that her daughters were sleeping in a third-floor room at the corner of the house.
Firefighters used ladders to enter the third floor and battled through two rooms, but did not find any of the children before being forced out of the building by intense heat and flames.
Badger's friend Michael Borcina who had also been in the house told rescuers that he had gone after the girls and brought them to the second floor in an attempt to get them out of the house.
"He led the two girls downstairs, but the heat drove them to get separated," Stamford Interim Fire Chief Antonio Conte told a news conference today.
Conte said that the girls "panicked" when they reached the second floor. "One ran upstairs and one went in another direction. [Borcina] lost sight of them, so he exited the structure."
Once outside, Borcina attempted to go back into the house but was unable to due to the raging fire.
A fire rescue team tried to enter the second floor to search for the girls, but despite efforts of other firefighters to keep the flames off of the rescuers, they could not search the area.
The children's grandfather, Lomer Johnson, apparently found one of the girls and led her to a second floor window.
"He had actually made it outside the structure. He had gone through a window in the rear," Conte said.
Lomer apparently sat the girl on a pile of books next to the window so that he would be able to step outside and then pull her out of the house. But when he stepped out on the roof, he fell face down between two beams that had been covered with a material not strong enough to hold his weight.
"It looks like she was placed on the books so he could get her from outside," Conte said. "When he stepped out that window, his life ended."
Officials have not yet determined the exact cause of Johnson's death. The girl's body was later found, still sitting on the books.
One of the children was later found on the third floor and the other was found on a second-floor stairwell landing with her grandmother Pauline Johnson.
The fire began sometime after 3 a.m. while the occupants of the house were asleep. Officials believe the fire originated either in a mud room or trash enclosure at the rear of the house. The mud room, adjacent to the back of the house, shared a common wall with an outside trash area. Investigators think the embers were put in a bucket in one of the two locations.
"The fire entered the house quickly and spread through the first floor and up," Callahan said.
The fire quickly engulfed the home and neighbors called 911 at 4:52 a.m. to report the fire. The fire department responded within six minutes, but were unable to rescue the five people trapped in the house.
Lomer Johnson, his wife Pauline Johnson and their three granddaughters, Lily, 10, and 7-year-old twins Grace and Sarah, were killed in the fire. The couple's daughter Madonna Badger, the mother of the girls, survived along with her friend and contractor Michael Borcina.
"That poor woman lost her whole family in one fell swoop," Conte said. "I can't imagine how that feels."
Conte said one fire captain suffered second degree burns on his face and two others suffered from smoke inhalation. Asked how his firefighters are coping in the aftermath of the tragedy, Conte replied, "Not very well."
"I have 70 firefighters that I've ordered back today for counseling," he said. "They're big, burly guys and to see them break down and the scene was too much to bear. It's really tough."
Psychologists and members of the Fire Department of New York are on hand to help with counseling, Conte said.