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Madonna Badger's search for answers

Updated 1:33 pm, Sunday, December 23, 2012

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  • Madonna Badger discusses the Christmas Day fire that killed her three daughters and her parents in an interview that aired June 2012 on NBC with Matt Laurer. Photo: NBC, Heidi Gutman/NBC / 2012 NBCUniversal Media, LLC.

    Madonna Badger discusses the Christmas Day fire that killed her three daughters and her parents in an interview that aired June 2012 on NBC with Matt Laurer.

    Photo: NBC, Heidi Gutman/NBC

 

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The fire marshal was there to do his job.

He had to ask Madonna Badger if she knew what started the fire that had just consumed her home in Shippan Point, a coveted neighborhood bordering Long Island Sound. He knew Badger's three daughters and parents were probably dead. But when he got to Stamford Hospital last Christmas morning, Badger was crying, "Where are my children? Where is my family?"

No one had told her. Soon, everyone would know her family had been killed as the sun rose on Christmas, in the deadliest house fire Stamford had seen in nearly 25 years.

Still, Assistant Fire Marshal Charles Spaulding had to ask his question.

Badger gave him an answer.

"It must have been the ashes," she told him.

One year later, she wishes she could take back that answer.

"I was blaming myself," Badger said. "That's what you do."

Her last thought before she went to bed after putting the presents under the tree was whether she should take the fireplace ashes from the mudroom and put them outside.

She didn't do it. She remembered how her then-boyfriend, Michael Borcina, the contractor renovating her century-old Victorian which had water views, had placed the ashes in a bag and run his hand through them to ensure there were no live embers. She remembered that a small amount of ashes had been swept away from the hearth of the fireplace, not into it.

So she left the bag in the plastic bin in the mudroom where Borcina placed it, and went to bed. About an hour later she awoke to smoke.

That was what she thought about when Spaulding asked his question.

Now she is the one with the questions. She wonders whether fire marshals would have looked more closely into other possible causes had she not told Spaulding about the ashes. Why didn't anyone look more closely at her electrical meter, which hung on the outside mudroom wall near where Borcina placed the ashes?

Badger is coming up short in her search for answers. The reason is that, within 24 hours after the fire at 2267 Shippan Ave. was extinguished, the city -- without telling Badger -- had her house demolished. The debris was hauled away quickly and irretrievably dumped.

Without evidence, Badger's list of questions has grown.

"Even if it was the ashes that caused it, I'm still allowed to know why they were allowed to go through my belongings and cart everything away," Badger said. She feels "violated and outraged by the taking of my home and all of the physical evidence that had to do with the fire that killed my family."

A woman who earned a solid reputation in the cutthroat world of New York advertising by the time she was 40, Badger and her team of lawyers and investigators have spent the last year researching fire investigation procedures, building codes and electrical meters. She has read years of news clippings about Stamford. She read about embezzlements by city employees, and about the scrap metal probe in which no city workers were held accountable, even though afterward revenue from the sale of metals doubled.

It's disturbing "that these people can keep their jobs," Badger said. "I am outraged to find out that in Stamford, Connecticut, you can destroy . . . a protected boatyard and nothing happens." Among city officials, "there seems to be a disregard for . . . what the law says, for what the protocol is."

If government does not follow protocols, it "doesn't just mean higher taxes," Badger said. It can mean that, after a fire such as the one that took her family, "your house has been torn down and all of its contents have been taken and put into a dump, never to be seen again."

She has filed a notice of intent to sue city officials.

"I would love to not have to take legal action against the city. But every time I go to ask them . . . or any of the people they've contracted . . . every time I ask a question I am met with, `Go get a subpoena,'" Badger said. ". . . No one will step forward with the truth unless compelled by a lawsuit.

"This is not about anything that has to do with the brave men who showed up to fight the fire and try to save my family. For me, it's the aftermath -- what protocols were not followed after the fire," she said. "There are too many missing pieces."

Most of them have to do with why her house was torn down and carted away so quickly.

Stamford Legal Affairs Director Joseph Capalbo said the city had the house demolished "because it was in the best interests of the community and the safety of those around it. There were a lot of curiosity seekers, houses nearby, neighbors. There was nothing holding that house up."

Capalbo said he cannot comment much beyond that because legal actions against the city, including one by Badger's former husband, Matthew Badger, are pending.

A hasty demolition?

During a news conference shortly before noon Dec. 25, with Badger's house smoldering in the background, then-interim Fire Chief Antonio Conte said the investigation would take time because the roof was collapsing and walls were wobbling.

"With the condition of the building, it will remain (under investigation) for a number of days until the fire marshal can get in," Conte said. "I would say it's a number of days before we actually find out how this occurred and what happened."

But trucks from AMEC Carting, a Norwalk demolition company hired by the city, rolled in early the next day. The house was gone by noon Dec. 26.

City cell phone records show that, about three hours after Conte made his statement to reporters, Chief Building Official Robert DeMarco called AMEC. DeMarco had to ask whether the company could do the job the day after Christmas, which last year fell on a Sunday, making that Monday a national holiday.

DeMarco did not consult Badger even though he called AMEC about 2 p.m., while Badger was at Stamford Hospital.

Badger, who built and runs a high-end New York advertising agency, said she wonders how the fire marshal could consult her about the cause of the fire but DeMarco could not consult her about the demolition.

DeMarco said he issued the order after checking with the fire marshal to make sure the investigation was complete.

"This is a dangerous situation," DeMarco said three days after the fire. "You go in there and you don't even know where you're stepping; you could go right through. If I feel it's unsafe I can deem it to come down."

City ordinances and state statutes do not empower DeMarco to order a demolition without notifying the owner. The city Charter stipulates that the building official provide written notice to owners and wait five days before demolishing unsafe buildings.

The state building code requires notification of the owner, even in emergencies. It gives municipal building officials the authority to demolish "when imminent danger or an unsafe condition requiring immediate action exists" and the owner can't be found or can't make the building safe.

In February, DeMarco wrote a memo to his boss, Director of Operations Ernie Orgera, saying he decided to demolish Badger's house because "the owner of the property was incapacitated."

But up until about 7 p.m., Badger was conscious and making medical decisions for herself at Stamford Hospital.

DeMarco told police in January that the $1.7-million, 3,350-square-foot house, which stood on a third of an acre, was too badly damaged to board up. Erecting a fence would not provide safety from the house or from the debris, DeMarco said. The open foundation was dangerous as well, but the fence could provide safety from that, he said.

City officials did not supervise the demolition or debris removal, DeMarco told police. When police asked AMEC what happened to the debris, they were only told that it was "gone."

Badger returned to 2267 Shippan Ave. on Jan. 2, but there was nothing left for her insurance company or a private fire investigator to inspect.

Photographs of the charred house show heavy damage to the right side, the roof caved in. The lower left side appears intact. A white rocking chair is undamaged on the front porch, and Christmas lights are wrapped around the wooden rail.

Photographs show little fire damage to Badger's bedroom, leading to questions about the fate of her jewelry and other personal items.

Asked whether AMEC would have preserved such items -- and what the company would have done with Badger's newly installed steel support beams, granite and marble counters and other material likely to have survived the fire -- spokeswoman Michelle Marmarinos said, "Unfortunately the only comment we can give you is that it's a tragedy and we want to respect the privacy of the parents and family members. Unfortunately there is not any information we can give you. We are not going to talk about it."

City officials directed questions about the fire to Capalbo, who said they feared the house would damage neighboring properties.

"That house was about to fall," he said. "There was nothing holding that house up."

Despite the safety risk, DeMarco and Assistant Fire Marshal Robert Sollitto inspected the basement electrical panels the morning after the fire. A photograph shows two men entering the basement, one without a hard hat.

A thorough investigation?

After examining the panels, DeMarco, whose background is in electrical, determined that it was not the origin of the fire.

Badger said it is disturbing that the department that inspected and issued building permits for her home had a role in determining the fire's cause, and final say in its demolition.

"The same people that signed the work permits for the construction of my house, the same people that are supposed to be doing the inspections of my house and making sure that it's safe, are the same people who signed the order that my house should be torn down and taken away," she said. "How can that same person have all that power?"

Sollitto wrote in an inspection report that he examined all visible electrical wiring and found no evidence of malfunction. Based on that and Badger's statements, he re-examined the mudroom and confirmed it as the site of origin.

Stamford fire officials turned down an offer from the state fire marshal to assist with the investigation, state Sgt. Chris Guari said in February. Municipalities don't always ask the state to help investigate fatal fires, Guari said.

Stamford Fire & Rescue has not requested state help once in the last three years, according to the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.

Ron Graner, who was Stamford fire chief from 1993 to 1998 and now works as a fire consultant, said he doesn't think that is unusual.

"Stamford Fire & Rescue and fire investigators are all state-certified," Graner said. "In fact the state calls them to go to other areas when they're needed. They're very thorough at what they do."

Badger is not convinced. She pointed to National Fire Protection Association standards, which call for evidence to be preserved for "further testing and evaluation or courtroom presentation."

Unclear protocol?

A review of city records reveals unclear procedures for emergency demolitions. DeMarco did not sign a permit for AMEC's $22,100 demolition job until Jan. 10. The company's demolition application lists Dec. 28 as the project's start date, and AMEC Operations Director John Buzzeo signed an affidavit Dec. 27 saying the work was "authorized by the owner."

It's unclear which city officials approved the demolition or even knew about it ahead of time. DeMarco told police he sought Orgera's permission before issuing the order.

"Mr. DeMarco summed up his involvement as making recommendations to Mr. Orgera," the January police report said. "He stated that Mr. Orgera agreed with his recommendations and told him to do what he thought was necessary."

Mayor Michael Pavia, who spent Christmas Day at the fire scene, said he was not asked about the demolition.

"I didn't really know what the process or the procedure was like at this point in time," Pavia said. "This was something that was unprecedented. But I did feel that the structural integrity of the building was compromised."

Capalbo said he cannot comment on specifics but, "It's safe to say that the investigation they conducted was thorough and complete and we have all the confidence in the world in their results."

Last December DeMarco said Badger's house wasn't the first he condemned within 24 hours. In October 2011 a Long Ridge Road home was destroyed in a blaze that killed the family dog.

"I ordered that immediately to come down," DeMarco said. "There was nothing left of the house."

But the Long Ridge Road house remained standing for weeks. City records show AMEC did not apply for a demolition permit until Dec. 21.

A October 2011 fire at a home on Newfield Avenue was so extensive that firefighters brought in a backhoe and ripped out the middle to ensure flames were extinguished. A Stamford fire marshal and an insurance adjustor arrived days later to inspect it, said the homeowner, Phyllis Altamura.

"The city didn't really want to make the call as far as demolishing it," she said. "They would have rather had the insurance make the call. (The fire marshal) left it really up to me."

Missing pieces

In his June 8 statement on the fire, in which he explains why he did not pursue prosecutions, State's Attorney David Cohen said his office and police should be consulted before such demolitions.

"Most likely it was caused by the disposal of fireplace ash at that location (mudroom.) Other theories have been proposed such as an electrical fault where the electric lines enter the house or defective electric or gas meters," Cohen wrote. "Regrettably, the structure was demolished before the state fire marshal's office or any other expert could make an independent examination and determination. Thus, other theories, however unlikely, cannot be definitively rebutted."

Badger points to a photo of her house after the fire that shows a Christmas wreath on the outside mudroom wall, near where the ashes were placed. The wreath was only singed.

The entire adjacent wall that held the electrical meter, however, was badly burned, Badger said.

She questions the meter because when she woke up choking last Christmas morning, the house had no power. When she went out her bedroom window and ran on the porch roof toward her daughters' bedrooms, saw the meter throwing off big white sparks and making "an incredible sound." White sparks went "pop, pop, pop" up Shippan Avenue along the power lines, she said.

CL&P will not discuss the fire. Tricia Modifica, media relations manager for Northeast Utilities, parent company of CL&P, said, "It is our understanding that there are current legal proceedings and investigations relating to this tragic incident, and while they don't involve CL&P, we do not discuss ongoing proceedings."

Badger said CL&P gave her conflicting information last summer about her meter number, the date it was installed and what happened to it. Her research showed that utilities are installing "smart" meters -- high-tech devices that use radio waves to take hourly readings of electrical use.

Some smart meters have been linked to house fires.

Badger said that when her attorney asked a Northeast Utilities attorney whether her house had a smart meter, he was told to "get a subpoena." He persisted, and learned that the house did have one.

State records of a smart-meter test CL&P conducted in Stamford in 2009 show that the utility uses an earlier version of the device that has not been cited in fires. Badger's house was not part of the 2009 test and all the smart meters installed for the test were removed, Modifica said.

It's unclear, though, what type of meter Badger had. No one seems to know what happened to it.

Silent alarms

The renovation of Badger's home was substantially complete last Christmas, but when investigators checked her state-of-the-art, hard-wired smoke and carbon monoxide alarm system after the fire, they found that it was not connected to a power source.

No one seems to know why.

"I believed the hard-wired detectors, smoke and carbon monoxide, were operating on Christmas Day," Badger said. "That's what I was told."

Police interviews show that contractors working on Badger's house provided conflicting information about whether it had battery-operated smoke detectors, and whether the contractor, Borcina, ordered some taken down so painting or other work could be completed.

At Stamford Hospital on the day of the fire, Spaulding, the marshal, interviewed Borcina, who escaped the burning house through his bedroom window. Borcina's brother, Mitch Borcina, was in the hospital room.

Spaulding reported that Michael Borcina said "there were smoke detectors all over the house." When Spaulding asked whether it was possible that the alarms were not powered, Mitch Borcina had him leave the room.

Ten minutes later Mitch Borcina told Spaulding his brother "was not feeling up to continuing the interview."

Michael Borcina later told police he never told anyone to remove detectors, but painters might have. It is unknown whether any battery-operated smoke detectors were retrieved from the fire.

A Hearst Connecticut Newspapers investigation earlier this year revealed Borcina's troubled work history. His Connecticut contractor registration expired in 2000 and he could not renew it because he had a trail of lawsuits and $100,000 in legal judgments against him for failing to complete projects.

To work on Badger's home, he listed a friend as the general contractor, then renewed the friend's Connecticut registration without telling him, police found.

"I was misled," Badger said.

Borcina could not be reached for comment.

Badger and her former husband knew Borcina for about five years. She began a romantic relationship with Borcina a month before the fire, she said. It has ended.

Seeking the truth

Early last Christmas morning a doctor went into Badger's hospital room to tell her that Lily, 9, and twins Sarah and Grace, 7, and her parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson, had not survived.

"I remember curling up into a little ball and looking at the nurse," Badger said. "I wanted to crawl out of my body. Fire Marshal Spaulding came in and walked me around the nurses' station. I held onto him."

Experts say cold ashes can insulate embers, keeping them hot. If so, Borcina would have known there was a live ember in the bag only if his hand brushed against it.

"If it was the ashes, it was the ashes," Badger said. "I want to know that truth, too."