STAMFORD -- The firefighters were crying as they walked up Shippan Avenue.
Behind them the sun was rising over Stamford's waterfront. A large Victorian house was smoldering, the smoke lifting off the charred roof and evaporating quickly in the sharp December air. It was Christmas morning, and three little girls and their grandparents were gone.
Mayor Michael Pavia stood in disbelief. Just hours before he had been standing in the street, watching firefighters rush toward the burning building. Only the glow of flames shooting through the roof pierced the darkness of the early morning sky when he arrived.
"The weirdest thing was a few hours later it was light," Pavia said a year later in an interview at the Government Center. "The sun came up over Long Island Sound like it always does. Something horrible had happened in the night. It was Christmas Day, but it wasn't really Christmas Day."
They had tried so hard to save them. First the girls' mother, Madonna Badger, climbed out the window and up the scaffolding of her recently renovated home to her daughters' third-floor bedrooms. Black smoke poured out like a tidal wave when she opened the window.
"I tried to hold my breath and put my head into the smoke and toward the flames," Badger said. "It was the blackest smoke -- that black, sooty, horrible thing. It was hot and every time I put my head in, I would get singed."
Stamford Fire & Rescue Engine 4 arrived first on the scene and pulled Badger off her house. Fire Chief Antonio Conte, who at the time was serving as the department's interim head, said firefighters did everything they could to save her children and parents.
"They made a very aggressive attack on rescue," Conte said. "They were pushed back by the intense heat and flames. A second rescue attempt was made by the same crew. They pushed in again, and again they were pushed back by the intense heat and flames."
The fire quickly ate away at Badger's 116-year-old Victorian, and Assistant Fire Chief William Smith made the difficult decision to halt rescue efforts.
"They tried valiantly several different times," Conte said. "But the rescue captain radioed that the second floor was completely compromised and that the building had shifted. At that point, we had to pull everybody out because we had 16 people inside."
Police Chief Jon Fontneau said he remembers watching in horror as firefighters battled the blaze.
"It's a very helpless feeling," Fontneau said. "By that time the mom had already been removed from the scene."
"We did the best we could on that day, but it's just a tremendous tragedy," SEMS Chief of Operations Eddie Browne said. "Our hearts go out to the family."
Badger's three daughters, 9-year-old Lily and 7-year-old twins Sarah and Grace, died as they tried to escape the house with their grandparents, Pauline and Lomer Johnson. It took hours for the firefighters to fully extinguish the blaze and recover the victims' bodies.
"Our goal is to save lives," Conte said. "To lose five -- that was really, really hard."
Conte and dozens of other Stamford firefighters attended the Badger girls' funeral in Manhattan on Jan. 5. Dressed in uniform, they stood at attention as the three little caskets were carried out of the church.
The fire marshal's office later ruled that fireplace embers, which Borcina swept into a bag and left in the mudroom, sparked the blaze. Badger now questions that conclusion and has filed a notice to sue city officials who inspected her house during renovations and demolished it without her consent the day after Christmas. The impending lawsuit is not aimed at Stamford firefighters, she said.
"I don't feel like this is about anything that has to do with the brave men that showed up to fight the fire and try to save my family," Badger said. "That is not at all a part of this conversation. For me it's about the aftermath . . . what protocol was not followed before and after the fire."
In total, 61 firefighters responded to the blaze on Shippan Avenue Christmas Day. The tragedy is still difficult to talk about a year later, Conte said.
"Normally after every large fire what we do is called an after-action report," he said. "We go over all the steps that each unit took and see if there's a way to improve on things. We have yet to -- we tried -- and we just can't get through this one. The guys just break down, and it's too painful."
Stamford officials brought in professional counselors to talk to the firefighters after the tragedy. Former FDNY firefighter Ted Jankowski -- now Stamford's Director of Public Safety -- sent peer counselors to Connecticut.
"Sometimes it's easier for these guys to relate to another firefighter their feelings than it is to a psychologist or a psychiatrist," Conte said. "Some spoke and some chose not to speak. It's the one that you don't hear anything from that are the ones you have to start worrying about."
The department again offered counseling to first responders last week ahead of the fire's one-year anniversary.
"It's so vivid in your mind, that's the problem," Conte said. "You see things and they don't go away. They never go away."
Stamford's career and volunteer fire departments have launched several fire safety initiatives over the last year. Fire officials visited Stamford schools to teach children about fire safety, lessons Conte hopes the students will bring home to their families.
Stamford public safety officials also testified before state legislators in support of more stringent smoke alarm requirements. Both the General Assembly and Stamford Board of Representatives passed laws last spring and summer requiring smoke detection devices in all private residences. Previously, state and local laws required smoke alarms only in residences with three or more dwellings.
Fire Capt. Matt Palmer also founded a private nonprofit organization to raise funds for fire safety in Stamford. Trinity Catholic High School students selected the program as their annual class service project last year and led fundraising efforts. All Stamford fire trucks are now equipped with smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, which fire fighters will install free of charge for residents who are in financial need or require physical assistance.
Stamford firefighters hope their efforts will prevent future tragedies, even if it won't help them forget about the fire on Shippan Avenue. Conte said he knows the firefighters' trauma, while severe, can never compare to that of Badger and her daughters' father, Matthew Badger.
"I can't even imagine what those poor parents are going through," Conte said. "I know what we're going through and it's impossible to even come close to what they're feeling."
Kate.King@scni.com; 203-964-2263; http://twitter.com/kcarliniking