The cause of the fire that killed the three children and parents of a well-known advertising executive who grew up in Kentucky was related to a fireplace, said the mayor of the Connecticut town where the Christmas Day blaze occurred.
Stamford, Conn., Mayor Michael Pavia says foul play has been ruled out. He says preliminary information shows it was just a tragic accident.
He described the cause as "fireplace-related" but could not provide more details.
Property records show that the was owned by the executive, Madonna Badger, 47. Badger and a family friend managed to flee from the house, screaming for help, according to neighbors who were awakened by the fire.
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Badger's three daughters and her parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson, died in the blaze, Sgt. Paul Guzda of the Stamford Police Department said. Badger's three children were Lily, 9, and Grace and Sarah, 7-year-old twins.
Lomer Johnson, 71, a former safety director with Louisville-based distiller Brown-Forman, spent his last day working at his dream job: as Santa Claus on the ninth floor of the Saks 5th Avenue flagship store in Manhattan. He was known for his real long, white beard.
A day after fire swept through his daughter's upscale house in Stamford, Lomer Johnson was remembered fondly as a stickler for safety by a former boss at Louisville, Ky.-based liquor maker Brown-Forman Corp., where Johnson retired from his job as safety and security director several years ago.
"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."
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 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, local fire Chief Antonio Conte said. The house was situated in Shippan Point, a wealthy neighborhood that juts into Long Island Sound.
He said the bodies were found on the second and third floors and on the stairway between the floors. Lomer Johnson's body was found near a window with one of the girls, Conte told WFSB-TV. He said it appeared he was trying to help her escape.
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.
The acquaintance who also escaped was a contractor working on the home, police said. He was identified by the Stamford Advocate newspaper as Michael Borcina.
Borcina was hospitalized Tuesday in stable condition, a nursing supervisor said.
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.
Neighbor Tim Abbazia, who did not know the victims, said the fire occurred in a neighborhood where century-old homes are common and that it would make everyone assess fire safety. He said it could not have been any more tragic.
"Regardless of which day it happened, I don't think it could be any worse than it is," he said.
The fire was Stamford's deadliest since a 1987 blaze that also killed five people, Conte 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."