There could be no television more wrenching than Matt Lauer’s upcoming interview with Madonna Badger about the Christmas-morning fire that killed her three young daughters along with her parents.
And no decent person would want to offer anything but comfort to a woman who has suffered such unimaginable loss.
Still, let’s hope that NBC corrects a dangerous misconception contained in a portion of the interview made available in advance of Thursday’s broadcast, scheduled to run in the morning on NBC’s Today show and in prime time on Rock Center with Brian Williams.
The authorities in Stamford, Conn., have said that the fire was almost certainly started by fireplace embers placed in a paper bag by her boyfriend, Michael Borcina. He then deposited the embers in a plastic container in a mudroom adjoining the house.
According to the transcript of the interview on the MSNBC website, Badger tells Lauer, “I don’t believe that the ashes started the fire.”
She explains to Lauer: “The wind blew ashes out onto the hearth, and so we were cleaning up. I watched [Borcina] take them with his hand, the shovel, and put ’em into the bag. And then take his—I watched him put his hands in the bag...to make sure that there’s nothing on fire in the bag.”
“And you watched him do that?” Lauer asks.
“Oh yeah,” Badger says.
“Do you blame him?” Lauer asks.
“No, I do not blame him,” Badger says. “I don’t believe that the ashes started the fire. So I don’t blame him.
NBC might also interview Cpt. Joe Duran of the fire department in Chico, Califa. He had this to say to the local press after his department responded to a fire caused by fire embers placed in a plastic container beside a house—just two days before the Badger fire:
“The ashes can stay hot for days. They may even feel cool but deep inside the ashes may have an ember.”
Duran said Wednesday of the Chico blaze, “It was kind of like, ‘How did this fire start?’ The guy said, ‘Yeah, I put some embers in there, but that was three or four days ago.’”
Fireplace ashes are a hazard for at least a day and can remain so for as long as a fortnight, Duran says.
“It could be two weeks,” he says. “Slowly, slowly, it just cooks and doesn’t go out. Finally, at some point, it gets enough oxygen to ignite…creates enough heat to go into free burning mode.”
He recommends letting the ashes cool for considerably longer than the uninitiated might imagine necessary before placing them in a metal container far from any structure. There is no reason not to take one added precaution.
“Put water in it,” Duran says.
In the Chico fire, nobody was hurt. Duran emphasizes that he is not seeking to place blame on Badger or anyone else for the horrific losses incurred in the Connecticut fire. He said he has only compassion for the family and agreed to speak to The Daily Beast with the hope of preventing other tragedies.
“It’s just a safety message,” Duran says. “We get fires every year like that.”
Duran’s warnings and advice are echoed by fire safety experts elsewhere, including those at the U.S. Fire Administration, which has a “golden rule” that embers should sit at least 24 hours before being removed from the fireplace.
“These embers really can hold their heat, hold their temperature enough to get things burning for a long time,” says USFA spokesman Tom Olshanski.
If just a single ember remains hot at its core, Olshanski notes, the result can be an inferno. “It’s all you need,” he says, “It’s a lot like a book of matches…One match can bring down the largest of structures.”
In the June 5 statement accompanying his decision not to file criminal charges in the Badger fire, Connecticut state Attorney David Cohen says the blaze almost certainly started in the mudroom where Bocina placed the ashes.
“A ‘V’ burn pattern was found at the extreme northwest corner of the house near the rear porch enclosure,” Cohen states, summarizing the finding of the Stamford fire marshal. “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 to the house from the so-called mudroom.”
He continues: “Additionally, examination of the electrical service in the basement ruled out any electrical malfunction as being the cause of the fire. It would appear, therefore, that the fire originated in the mudroom located at the northwest corner of the first floor. Most likely it was caused by the disposal of fire place ash at that location.”
“These embers really can hold their heat, hold their temperature enough to get things burning for a long time.”
Cohen allows that “other theories have been proposed such as an electrical fault where the electric lines enter the house or defective electric or gas meters,” but are impossible to test because the city of Stamford hastily tore down the house and carted the wreckage away, citing safety concerns.
“Thus, other theories, however unlikely, cannot be definitively rebutted,” Cohen says.
Cohen goes on to report that “a fire had been lit in the fireplace at the home sometime in the afternoon of Dec. 24, and maintained throughout the day and early evening until approximately 8 p.m. when it was decided not to add any further wood.”
Badger’s daughters, 10-year-old Lily and 7-year-old twins, Sarah and Grace, went to bed, as did her parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson. Badger and her boyfriend went out to the garage to wrap presents. They returned around 3:30 a.m.
“At that time, Mr. Borcina cleaned out the fireplace, shoveling the ash into a paper bag,” Cohen says. “He says that he then smoothed out the ashes in the bag with his hand. This was confirmed by Mrs. Badger, who stated that this allayed any concern that she might have had that there were live embers present. The bag was placed in a plastic storage box, which was then placed just inside the exterior door in the mudroom, the point of origin of the fire. Badger and Borcina retired separately at about 4 a.m. The fire was reported at 4:41 a.m.”
However likely it may be that the fire was started by the ashes, Cohen does not believe this translates into blame.
“It is my opinion that there is insufficient evidence to establish that either Mrs. Badger or Mr. Borcina were aware of and consciously disregarded a risk that there was a possible live ember in the ash that could result in a catastrophic fire,” he says. “It stretches belief to think that they would consciously disregard the danger and go to sleep, much less that they would disregard any danger to the Badger children or Mrs. Badger’s parents.”
If that is so, then it can be assumed Badger and Borcina would never have put the embers in the bag if they were cognizant of the danger. Cohen was unable to determine whether there were working fire alarms in the house. Badger reportedly says in the Lauer interview that there were. Neighbors and the responding firefighters have said they did not hear any, but Cohen says it seems impossible that Badger and Borcina would have been so foolhardy with kids in the house.
“It would be difficult for a jury to believe that anyone would knowingly disable smoke detectors and then use the fireplace,” Cohen suggests.
Meanwhile, Badger has filed notice that she intends to sue the city of Stamford for tearing down her burned house and carting the evidence away before the initial findings of the fire marshal could be independently verified and other possibilities fully explored.
Whether or not the ashes caused the fire, there is no doubt they constituted a hazard. It’s a message that both NBC and Badger might try to spread during Thursday’s broadcasts.