- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 27, 2011

STAMFORD, Conn. — A Christmas morning fire that killed a couple and three of their grandchildren was started by fireplace embers that had been discarded near a first-floor entryway, officials said Tuesday.

The officials also said it wasn’t clear whether the home had working smoke detectors. Stamford Mayor Michael Pavia called the fire a “tragic accident,” not the result of foul play.

Sometime between 3 and 3:30 a.m., a friend staying in the home put the fireplace ashes in a bag and left it either in or outside a mudroom and trash enclosure attached to the rear of the house, Stamford’s fire marshal Barry Callahan said. 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,” Mr. 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.

Stamford acting Fire Chief Antonio Conte said the children’s mother, Madonna Badger, had climbed out a window onto scaffolding and then a flat roof. She was screaming for her daughters — 10-year-old Lily and 7-year-old twins Grace and Sarah — 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.

The friend of Ms. Badger’s who had been staying in the home told investigators he actually had led two of the girls downstairs, but heat from the flames separated them, Chief Conte said. One apparently went back upstairs and another one was found with her grandmother, Pauline Johnson.

Ms. Badger’s father, Lomer Johnson, was found outside. It appears he had been trying to help one of the girls 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,” Chief Conte said.

The acquaintance who escaped, Michael Borcina, is a contractor who had done work on the home. Mr. Borcina was listed in fair condition Tuesday at Stamford Hospital. He declined to comment through a hospital spokeswoman.

Ms. 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. Her whereabouts were unknown.