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4:52 on Christmas Morning


In the rear guest bedroom, Borcina heard a knock, his bedroom door may have swung open. Smoke was pouring in. He could not see but sensed a presence he believed was Lomer and Pauline with one of the children. He walked into the smoke. He fell over. He went to a window, opened it, inhaled deeply, shouted behind him in the dark, “Come this way!” No one followed. He made his way into the hallway, where smoke was gushing up the main stairwell. He started down the steps, toward the front door. It was on fire. The air above him singed the skin of his shaved head, forcing him to crouch down. He scrambled back to his room. There was no one behind him. He climbed out the window, falling to the ground in his boxer shorts.

It became ravenous. The sound was deafening. The stainless steel of the refrigerator began discoloring; inside, the food burned.

Down the street, firefighters struggled to secure the hose line to a hydrant. Other firefighters scattered about the home’s exterior, one to the roof to control the spraying, another atop a large apparatus that had been driven onto the property, directing streams of water into the windows. More firefighters tried to make entries onto all floors, those from Engine 4 crawling inside the turreted room to enter the master bedroom, blinded by smoke and darkness, sweeping a piece of metal across the floor in front of them in search of life. Others entered Madonna’s room through the second-floor windows; the structure was collapsing, the ceiling falling in huge chunks, and by now the pocket doors were gone. There was a view through to the landing, through the flames and smoke, there were two people—an adult, a child? The firefighters would later explain the house was “fully involved,” it was too late, the victims could not “be viable.”

At 5:26, a captain made the call for all those inside the building to back out and for all those attempting to enter the building to stop.

What remained of the house sat up on a high foundation atop a mostly intact though completely flooded basement. There was still a tall wraparound porch with a low-slung white railing strung with Christmas lights. There was a swing and some rocking chairs on the part of the turret that on the first floor became a covered portico. Inside there were gaping holes and tunnels. Hours later, as the sun rose over the Long Island Sound, the firefighters entered one such tunnel, walking atop ladders they laid down as makeshift joists and floor beams. In the rear of the turreted room, beyond the window her mother had been kicking at, they found remains later identified as Sarah Badger. On the second-floor hallway landing they discovered those of Pauline Johnson and Grace Badger; Pauline had taken off her nightclothes, swaddling her granddaughter. In one of the spare bedrooms on that floor, out a different window, lying atop beams meant to replace the flat roof of the sunroom below, they found the body of Lomer Johnson. He’d evidently thrust himself against the plywood obstructing that window and fallen through it, breaking his neck. Just inside the window, on top of stacked-up books, was the body of Lily Badger.

They—we—groped for explanation. For cause and effect. For some reason why it could not happen to any of us.

Which is to say, the story became about smoke detectors.

In some places around southeastern Connecticut, smoke-detector sales increased 700 percent. On January 6, 2012, the Stamford Advocate quoted Ray Barrett, general manager of Keough’s Hardware and Paint, who said the store had sold two months’ worth since the fire. The paper noted that the “fervor for smoke alarms appears to wane with distance,” with three hardware stores in New York State and six in the Johnsons’ native Louisville reporting “no difference.” “You have to have your own fire,” certified fire-­protection specialist Daniel Gardiner told the paper. “And your own deaths.”

Officials pursued the same angle.

Stamford’s chief building inspector and fire marshal’s conclusion was straightforward: The origination point appeared to be the mudroom, where the ashes had been disposed; the only area of the basement showing any sign of fire damage was the ceiling area in the northwest corner, directly below the rear entryway into the house from the mudroom. In the basement, they inspected a “metal box that appeared to contain the main electronics for a security/fire detection system. The internal components did not appear to have suffered any damage due to the fire, but it was noted that the main power supply (plug) was still inside the metal box and not connected to a permanent power supply. There was also a DC battery inside the metal box that was not connected to the main circuit board.”


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