Fireplace ashes can be deceiving. Just ask anyone involved in the nearly 11,600 residential building fires in the U.S. each year that federal safety officials say are caused by hot embers or ashes.
It appears that Michael Borcina was among those duped. Fire officials in Stamford, Conn., say a bag of fireplace ashes Borcina left near the back of the home where he was staying caused a fire early Christmas morning that killed his friend's three children and their two grandparents. Borcina and the mother, Madonna Badger, escaped the blaze after failed attempts to rescue the little girls.
The fire has led to renewed safety warnings by federal and local authorities.
"What often happens, and it's a pretty common scenario that we see, is that although the fire may look out, the embers in the ashes may remain hot enough to start a fire for up to 24 hours after the fire is thought to be out," said Tom Olshanski, a spokesman for the U.S. Fire Administration.
Olshanski and local fire officials in Stamford and other communities urged homeowners this week to put fireplace ashes in a metal container and place it well away from the house. If you leave hot ashes in the fireplace, make sure there's a metal screen or glass partition in place, they said. And, of course, make sure you have working smoke detectors, they advised.
University of Vermont men's basketball coach John Becker and his family could have suffered a tragedy similar to the one in Stamford on Tuesday. A construction worker who just happened to be passing by the Beckers' home noticed it was on fire and woke the family up by knocking on the door around 6:30 a.m.
Burlington's fire marshal, Terry Francis, said the fire was caused by hot fireplace ashes in a paper bag that was placed on the back porch of the home the night before. Becker, his wife and their daughter escaped.
"We got out of there in the nick of time," Becker told the Burlington Free Press. "Kenny Roberts was the construction worker who saved us. I can't thank him enough, and I can't thank the Burlington Fire Department enough."
The Fire Safety Administration says there about 374,900 residential building fires in the U.S. every year. Those fires kill more than 2,600 people and injure another 13,000. Cooking is the leading cause, starting 44 percent of the fires.
About 192,700 of yearly residential fires spread beyond the source, and 6 percent of those fires are caused by hot embers or ashes, the Fire Safety Administration says.
And 15 percent of multiple-fatality fires are caused by unintentional or careless actions, the agency says. There are about 250 multiple-fatality fires in the U.S. each year, resulting in an estimated 825 deaths and 200 injuries.
No fatality statistics solely for fires caused by ashes were available.
In Stamford, fire officials say they believe Borcina, a 52-year-old construction company owner, left a bag of hot fireplace ashes near the back of the house between 3 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. The fire was reported just after 4:40 a.m.
Borcina, who left the hospital Wednesday, has declined to comment.
Badger's three daughters, 10-year-old Lily and 7-year-old twins Grace and Sarah, and her parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson died amid frantic rescue attempts by Borcina, Badger and local firefighters. Borcina and Badger were treated at a local hospital and released.
The Connecticut medical examiner's office said Wednesday that the victims died of smoke inhalation, and Lomer Johnson also suffered a blunt head and neck injury, possibly from a fall or being hit by an object.
One of the girls, found dead just inside a window, had been placed on a pile of books, apparently so Johnson could reach in and grab her after he jumped out. Instead, authorities say, he fell through the roof.