STAMFORD, Conn. — The grandfather of three girls trapped in their burning home on Christmas morning died as he climbed the roof to try to save one of them, officials revealed Tuesday. The girls and their grandmother also perished in what investigators concluded was a tragic accident started by fireplace embers.
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Lomer Johnson apparently collapsed outside the window of a bedroom, Stamford Fire Chief Antonio Conte told reporters.
It appears he had been planning to help the child get out; she had been placed on a pile of books, so he could reach in and grab her, officials said.
"When he went out the window, that's when he succumbed and she died just inside the window," Conte said.
"He died on the outside, and she died on the inside," Conte said. "She was right next to him."
Lomer Johnson had appeared as Santa at Saks Fifth Avenue's flagship store in Manhattan. His daughter, homeowner Madonna Badger, a New York City ad executive, survived along with Michael Borcina, described as her boyfriend, who was staying with her while helping remodel the Victorian house.
Sometime between 3 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, a friend staying in the home put fireplace ashes in a bag and left it either in or outside a mudroom and trash enclosure attached to the rear of the house, said Barry Callahan, Stamford's fire marshal. The fire was reported just after 4:40 a.m.
"The fire entered the house quickly and spread throughout the first floor and up two interior vertical openings, trapping the occupants on the upper floors," Callahan said.
Officials described a frantic scene after rescuers arrived early Sunday.
Neighbors said they were awakened by screams shortly before 5 a.m. and rushed outside to help but could do nothing as flames devoured the large Victorian home.
Conte said the children's mother had climbed out a window onto scaffolding and then a flat roof. She was screaming for her children and pointed firefighters to the third floor.
Firefighters climbed to the third floor twice, but the heat and flames were too intense and the children were not where they thought they would be, he said.
Borcina told investigators he actually had led two of the girls downstairs, but heat from the flames separated them, Conte said.
One apparently went back upstairs and another one was found with her grandmother at the bottom of the stairwell between the second and third floors, he said.
Flames were shooting out of the house when firefighters arrived, said Brendan Keatley, a firefighter who was at the scene.
"Two sides of the structure were walls of flame," Keatley said.
Firefighters used a ladder and construction scaffolding outside the house to reach the third floor, but they ran into extreme heat and poor visibility in a hallway, Keatley said. Four firefighters were injured as they searched for the victims, including a captain who suffered second-degree burns on his face, Keatley said.
Fighting the fire took a physical and an emotional toll, he said, and counselors were being made available to firefighters.
"We are devastated, just like everybody else is devastated," Keatley said Tuesday.
There were plans for hard-wired smoke alarms, but they had not been hooked up, an official said. Officials did not know whether battery-operated ones were being used.
The home was demolished Monday due to the fire damage and safety concerns.
Badger, who is separated from her husband, had a 10-year-old and 7-year-old twins. Her parents were visiting for the holidays.
The death of Lomer Johnson was a blow to Saks Fifth Avenue. He had worked as Santa at the chain's flagship store in Manhattan. "Mr. Johnson was Saks Fifth Avenue's beloved Santa, and we are heartbroken about this terrible tragedy," Saks spokeswoman Julia Bently said Monday.
Badger, a New York ad executive in the fashion industry, is the founder of New York City-based Badger & Winters Group. A supervisor at Stamford Hospital said she was treated and discharged by Sunday evening.
Property records show she bought the five-bedroom, waterfront home for $1.7 million last year. The house is situated in Shippan Point, a wealthy neighborhood that juts into Long Island Sound.
"It is a terrible, terrible day," Stamford Mayor Michael Pavia told reporters at the scene of the fire on Sunday. "There probably has not been a worse Christmas day in the city of Stamford."
Police officers drove Badger's husband, Matthew Badger, from New York City to Stamford on Sunday morning.
Firefighters knew there were other people in the home but could not get to them because the flames were too large and the heat too intense, Conte said Monday, his voice cracking with emotion.
"It's never easy. That's for sure," he said. "I've been on this job 38 years ... not an easy day."
Badger's father known as 'Happy Santa'
Badger's parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson, were going to celebrate their 49th anniversary on Monday, a family member told The New York Times. Lomer Johnson, 71, had spent Saturday working as Santa Claus at Saks Fifth Avenue, a gig he had been doing since retiring as a safety director for the parent company of Jack Daniels.
The man with the long white beard loved posing as Santa, said the relative, who asked not to be named.
“That’s all he ever wanted to be,” the family member told The Times. “He stopped shaving the day he retired.”
He advertised his services through a site called gigmasters.com, where he referred to himself as "Happy Santa." His profile reads "I am now a santa because my oldest granddaughter asked me to be a pretend Santa Claus. I have enjoyed it more than any job I've ever had."
Lomer Johnson also formerly worked to prevent fires as safety chief at a company in Kentucky.
He was remembered as a stickler for safety details by a former boss at the Louisville, Ky., liquor maker Brown-Forman Corp., where he retired as safety and security director years ago.
Former Brown-Forman executive Robert Holmes Jr. said Monday it was Johnson's job to keep plant workers safe. He says Johnson's responsibilities included planning fire drills.
Stamford, a city of 117,000 residents, is about 25 miles northeast of New York City.
Badger was the creative mind behind major advertising campaigns for leading fashion brands, including the iconic Mark Wahlberg underwear ads for Calvin Klein.
Raised in Kentucky, Badger began her career working as a graphic designer in the art department of Esquire magazine. Before starting her own company, she worked as an art director for several magazines and CRK, the in-house advertising agency for designer Calvin Klein.
Badger & Winters has worked with Proctor & Gamble, CoverGirl, A/X Armani Exchange, Emanuel Ungaro and Vera Wang, among other high-profile corporations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.