A Christmas Day fire that killed three children and their grandparents was caused by discarded fireplace embers left in a first-floor mudroom, officials said Tuesday.
The fire marshal in Stamford, Conn., said at an afternoon briefing that investigators believed ash and embers from the fireplace were placed in a bag and tossed out, igniting the fire that quickly spread and trapped people on the upper floors of the house.
Neighbors said they were awakened by screams shortly before 5 a.m. Sunday and rushed outside to help but could do nothing as flames devoured the large Victorian home.
New York advertising executive Madonna Badger and a male acquaintance, Michael Borcina, were able to escape the blaze, but her parents, who were visiting for the holidays, and her daughters, 10-year-old Lily and 7-year-old twins Grace and Sarah, were killed.
Firefighters knew there were people trapped in the home but could not get to them because the flames were too large and the heat too intense, officials said.
The girls' mother told the first rescuers on scene that the children were sleeping on the third floor. They searched and could not find them, Fire Chief Antonio Conte said. Borcina later told them that he had gotten the children to the second floor, but they became scared and they lost track of each other.
On later trips to the second floor, firefighters still could not find the kids.
"Obviously we were unable to rescue anyone in that structure, and it's a sad day for the fire department," Conte said.
The girls' grandfather, Lomer Johnson, who worked as a Saks Fifth Avenue Santa Claus this season, was found right near a window where it appeared he was trying to get to one of the girls. They died just feet from each other, Conte said.
Parts of the house were undergoing renovations, and there was scaffolding on the outside, officials said. The fire did so much damage that it was unclear whether any of the work was inside, they said.
Badger was awaiting a final inspection before she could get a certificate of approval, officials said. There were plans for hard-wired smoke alarms, but they had not been hooked up.
The fire marshal said it was not clear whether the house had battery-operated smoke detectors in the meantime.
One fire captain suffered second-degree burns on his face and two other firefighters suffered smoke inhalation.
The $1.7 million Victorian house situated along the Connecticut shoreline was torn down Monday after the buildings department determined it was unsafe and ordered it razed.