The three children and the parents of a well-known advertising executive were killed when a predawn fire tore through the family’s Victorian house in a neighborhood overlooking Long Island Sound.
Property records show that the house was owned by the executive, Madonna Badger, 47; Ms. Badger and a family friend managed to flee from the house, her screams for help overheard by neighbors who were awakened by the fire.
Ms. Badger’s three young daughters and her parents died in the blaze, Sgt. Paul Guzda of the Stamford Police Department said. A relative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Ms. Badger’s three children were Lily, 9, and Grace and Sarah, 7-year-old twins.
Neighbors recounted a chaotic scene as flames engulfed the house and firefighters tried to rescue those inside.
“My whole life is in that house,” Ms. Badger shouted repeatedly, as she was led away by firefighters, according to a neighbor, Charles Mangano, who said he was 15 feet away from her.
Ms. Badger was taken to Stamford Hospital; a supervisor there said that she was released Sunday night. Her friend, a contractor who was doing work on the house, was also taken to the hospital; his condition was not disclosed.
Ms. Badger’s parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson, who died in the fire, were to celebrate their 49th anniversary on Monday, according to a family member, who asked not to be named.
Mr. Johnson, 71, spent his last day working at his dream job: as Santa Claus on the ninth floor of the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship store in Manhattan, the family member said. He was known for his real long, white beard.
“That’s all he ever wanted to be,” the family member said. “He stopped shaving the day he retired.”
Mr. Johnson had spent decades as safety director for the Brown-Forman Corporation, the parent company of Jack Daniels, working on, among other things, fire code for distilleries, according to the family member.
Known professionally as “Happy Santa,” he advertised his act through Gigmasters.com, but initially found work only in a Connecticut mall. But the jobs proved rife with anecdotes. Once, when a cashier was late to work, and a line of disappointed children were told they would have to wait an hour or more for their photo with Santa, Mr. Johnson took it upon himself to open the gate and declare that pictures that morning would be free — as long as visitors had their own cameras.
This year, he successfully auditioned to be Saks’s Santa, and on Christmas Eve he worked there, giving out candy canes and posing for photos, while his wife watched and updated the family on the phone about the scene, the family member said. Ms. Johnson, 69, was a retired electrical contractor who had owned John Waters Inc., a heating and cooling company in Louisville, Ky., which she purchased almost 30 years ago, unusual for a woman in that region at that time.
Five years ago, they moved to the New York area to be near their grandchildren.
Property records show that Ms. Badger bought the three-story, 19th-century house in December 2010 for $1.725 million. The property is surrounded by other old and large houses in an affluent neighborhood of Stamford, 35 miles northeast of Midtown Manhattan. The house, neighbors and officials said, had been undergoing renovations in the past six months.
“It did not appear that the renovations were part of the cause; they might have been part of the spread,” Timothy Conroy, deputy fire chief, said in a telephone interview, adding that the cause was under investigation. A total of 46 firefighters were dispatched to the scene, he said.
“We have not had a loss of life like this since back in the ’80s, where there was also the loss of five people,” he said. “I can’t remember anything like this.”
The heat and the height of the flames made it impossible to rescue the people remaining in the house, Antonio Conte, the acting Stamford fire chief, said at a news conference, according to The Associated Press.
The man who had been able to escape was screaming, “Help me, help me!” Mr. Mangano said. The man was led away, wearing only a T-shirt and boxer shorts, by firefighters.
“His hands were limp in front of him,” Mr. Mangano said.
Mr. Mangano, who lives around the corner from Ms. Badger’s home, said he did not know the family. When he arrived there, he said, “Flames were shooting out of every window — it was like a movie set.”
Another neighbor, Sam Cingari, 71, said he was awakened at 5 a.m. by the piercing, anguished voice of a woman. “I heard someone screaming at the top of their lungs,” Mr. Cingari said in a telephone interview. “The flames were coming through the top floor, and I thought, ‘Nobody could possibly survive this.’ ”
A woman who answered the phone in Ms. Badger’s hospital room said she did not wish to talk.
Ms. Badger worked for Calvin Klein in the early 1990s, developing the popular underwear campaign with Mark Wahlberg. She founded her own company, specializing in beauty and luxury brands, in 1994; it is now called Badger & Winters Group. Ms. Badger had initiated divorce proceedings with her husband, Matthew, but they had an amicable relationship, the relative said.
Firefighters were still on the block in the afternoon on Sunday. The roof caved in on the house; all that remained visible from a distance were two chimneys.
Mary Abbazia, a neighbor who awoke to sirens, said that she did not know the family, but that news of the fire had spread across Facebook on Sunday morning. “There’s no words,” she said, as neighborhood children played soccer behind her, one block from the destroyed home. “It’s always sad, especially on Christmas.”
At a news conference, the mayor of Stamford, Michael Pavia, said, “There probably has not been a worse Christmas Day in the city of Stamford,” The Associated Press reported.
By evening, flowers were left on the blackened porch, in front of a swing, still fully intact.