Published December 26, 2011
STAMFORD, Conn. – A department store Santa Claus who died with his wife and three grandchildren in a Christmas morning house fire in Connecticut spent a long career trying to prevent danger as safety chief at a liquor company in Kentucky.
A day after fire engulfed his daughter's upscale house in Stamford, Lomer Johnson was remembered fondly as a stickler for safety by a former boss at Louisville, Ky.-based liquor maker Brown-Forman Corp., where Johnson retired from his job as safety and security director several years ago.
"He spent his career trying to keep others safe," retired Brown-Forman executive Robert Holmes Jr. said Monday in a telephone interview. "And the irony is that he dies in a fire."
The home's owner, New York advertising executive Madonna Badger, and a male acquaintance escaped the blaze, which killed her parents, who were visiting for the holidays, and her three daughters, a 10-year-old and 7-year-old twins, police said.
The severely damaged $1.7 million house was torn down after the buildings department determined it was unsafe and ordered it razed, local fire Chief Antonio Conte said.
Neighbors said they awoke shortly before 5 o'clock Christmas morning to the sound of screaming and rushed outside to help but could do nothing as flames devoured the large, turreted home.
The acquaintance who escaped the fire with Badger was a contractor working on the home, police said. He was identified by the Stamford Advocate newspaper as Michael Borcina.
Interviews with them would be finished Monday, Conte said. He had no details on the investigation, and no information about the cause of the fire was released.
Johnson most recently worked as a Santa this year at the flagship store of Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a store spokeswoman said.
"Mr. Johnson was Saks Fifth Avenue's beloved Santa, and we are heartbroken about this terrible tragedy," spokeswoman Julia Bently said in a statement.
Holmes, who worked with Johnson for more than a decade at Brown-Forman, remembered his co-worker as a big man with white hair and a commanding presence.
"He was a man of not a lot of words, but when Lomer spoke or gave his opinion, it was always well thought out," Holmes said.
He said he was a bit surprised that the longtime security chief had become a department store Santa but added, "I could see Lomer doing something like that because Lomer had a passion for people."
During Johnson's long career with Brown-Forman, whose many brands include Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey and Southern Comfort, he was responsible for security and safety at the company's headquarters and production plants. His responsibilities included helping plan fire drills, Holmes said.
"He spent his life as a safety professional making sure our facilities were safe from fire," Holmes said. "And in the event there was a fire, that people knew what to do in terms of getting out of the buildings."
Badger, an ad executive in the fashion industry, is the founder of New York-based Badger & Winters Group. She was treated at a hospital and was discharged by Sunday evening, a hospital supervisor said. Her whereabouts Monday were unknown.
The contractor also was hospitalized, but his condition wasn't released.
Property records show Badger bought the five-bedroom, waterfront home for $1.7 million last year. The house was situated in Shippan Point, a wealthy neighborhood that juts into Long Island Sound.
The lot where the house stood was covered with charred debris and cordoned off by police with tape on Monday. Passers-by left floral bouquets, stuffed animals and candles.
Neighbor Tim Abbazia, who did not know the victims, said the fire occurred in a neighborhood where century-old homes are common and would make everyone assess fire safety. He said it could not have been any more tragic.
"Regardless of which day it happened, I don't think it could be any worse than it is," he said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a former mayor of Stamford, offered his condolences to Badger and her family in a statement and said her loss "defies explanation."
The fire was Stamford's deadliest since a 1987 blaze that also killed five people, Conte said.
Associated Press writers Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Ky., and Tom Hays in New York contributed to this report.