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4:52 on Christmas Morning

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Behind Borcina’s back, the workers talked about their boss. They were convinced that he was “chasing” Madonna. (Despite maintaining a $3,900 apartment in Battery Park City, he chose often to stay in her garage, and one employee was upbraided by Borcina after having informed Madonna, when she asked, that Borcina was on vacation in Puerto Rico with his girlfriend.) They attributed some of his idiosyncratic characteristics—his fickleness, his constantly being cold, his poor memory, his deafness in one ear and ferocious speaking voice—to lingering side effects from surgery several years ago to remove a brain tumor.

When Madonna’s rental expired, around the beginning of the summer, the project was far from done. She had a large Gulfstream trailer parked on the property, into which she moved the family for about a month. The arrangement proved difficult. The girls spent part of that summer with their father. In the meantime, Borcina was to focus on the third floor, the girls’ floor, so the family could return in time for the school year.

When the Badgers moved into the house, on September 9, much was still unfinished, including parts of the third floor, to which extension cords snaked up the staircase. As the new kitchen was still going up around her, Madonna and her two nannies used a toaster oven, coffeemaker, and a microwave plugged into a power strip plugged into a temporary outlet on the kitchen counter to the right of the stove. Floors needed to be laid; closets and cabinetry built; radiant heating put down in the bathroom floors; recessed lighting, valances, a dining-room chandelier installed. Grunow and Raskopf told investigators that when they left the job, in November, the top sashes on the old double-hung windows on the third floor were painted shut from years of accumulation, while the lower sashes had been secured with screws and sticks because the sash locks had been removed.

Madonna had also hired Borcina to handle renovations of her Manhattan office, and there were complications from that job, too. Workers heard heated financial conversations between Borcina and Madonna, leaving her “bawling.” They felt certain he was padding the bills, ordering construction redone where they thought it was unnecessary. Like others close to her, they wondered, too, about Madonna—why she chose to continue pursuing a relationship with Borcina professionally, let alone personally (by November, they had become a couple). Those who know her attributed it to her constitution, to the same things that made her so successful: her steadfastness, her determination, her belief in her own good judgment.

On December 23, the walls of the mudroom were sanded; an alcohol-based primer was used to coat the raw-wood paneling. Painters were working their way through the house. On the morning of the 24th, they were expected back. It was Christmas Eve, and Madonna decided to call them off.

The mudroom blazed. Soot particles burst, glowed, alighted. Fire and smoke rose in a plume to the less-dense atmosphere above, swirling within the small confines and back into itself. Within minutes, the increasing temperature drove every object to its ignition point, including he remaining Duraflame fire-starters. Flames opened to the outside, to a steady flow of oxygen. The smoke and heat and gases moved inward, streaming like water round the top of the mudroom entryway. The air mass itself finally ignited. Flames accelerated across the floors and up the butler’s stairwell to the landing, across the kitchen and dining room and then out across the open first floor.

Madonna opened her eyes. She immediately began choking. The room was dark and filled with thick smoke. The pocket doors were awash in flames. She heard no alarms, no other noise. She could not make it through the smoke toward the doors. Instead, she opened a window along the house’s front exterior. As she did, the smoke rushed across the room. In her nightgown, she climbed onto the flat roof of the front porch, which wrapped around the house. She shrieked. She scrambled around the porch. She looked up to the top-floor window of her neighbors’ house. Beyond the reflection of the horrific orange light, she could see her neighbors, Steve and Fern Loeb, whose 8-year-old son played often with the girls. She shouted about her children, to call 911. She climbed the construction scaffolding to the third floor, then up the turret. She could not see inside, there was too much smoke and fire. She began kicking against the window. She kept screaming their names.

The members of Engine 4 were returning from a house nearby where a woman had sought help after hearing an alarm coming from somewhere in her house; they had discovered the source was a wrapped gift. They arrived at Shippan Avenue at 4:52 a.m. There she was, climbing the scaffolding, as the fire spilled monstrously over the lip of the rear third floor. A second alarm was sounded.


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