The awful, tragedy-magnifying details of a Christmas fire in Stamford

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Today's front pages, Dec. 27, 2011. ()
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

New York Post: Today's the second day the Post has put the tragic Christmas morning fire in Stamford, Conn. on its front page. In case you're just coming back to the reading world, it's pretty heartbreaking.

Around 4:50 a.m. a distress call from a neighbor alerted emergency services in Stamford to a fire in a waterfront mansion. When the fire department arrived the house was already heavily engulfed in flames. The firefighters had to prevent Madonna Badger, who had been hosting her parents, boyfriend and three daughters for Christmas, from attempting to reenter the house in an effort to find her family inside. All three of her children—one 10-year-old and two seven-year-old twins—died in the fire, along with both of Badger's parents. Her boyfriend, Michael Borcino, survived but was found on the ground in a T-shirt and boxers, suffering after efforts to get into the house to save family members.

At least one firefighter, according to witness reports, also had to be restrained from trying to enter the house. The body of the children's grandfather was found on a flat roof outside of a window where he seems to have been trying to get one of the children out before smoke inhalation caused him to collapse. Earlier reports said that nearly 70 emergency responders were directed to counseling after the Christmas morning blaze.

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So far these are the details that make this fire one that might have happened anywhere, and it is as always the details that make the story resonate. Badger, for one, has a recognizable footprint in New York, as the creative director behind provocative ad campaigns for Calvin Klein underwear featuring Mark Wahlberg and for Calvin Klein's Obsession perfume featuring Kate Moss. Her father, who retired in 2000, had a post-retirement career as a Santa Claus performer, committing to the role at the suggestion of his granddaughter by growing a real, long white beard; he started out in nursing homes and the like but this year spent his first year as the Saks Fifth Avenue Santa. He had come back from his Christmas Eve shift to celebrate the holiday with his family.

Then there is the heroism—the grandfather's efforts, the uncontrollable urge of the mother to run into the flames to try to save her family, the efforts of her boyfriend, frustrated by the smoke and searing temperatures, to get back into the house after having gotten out alive.

"GONE IN A FLASH" reads the big white type over a family portrait featuring Badger's parents with her three girls, her father in the Santa suit, in front of a Christmas tree. "The beautiful kids and grandparents who died" reads the dek.

Other details not left out of the story: The house was a big waterfront Victorian with multiple levels that was undergoing renovation, valued at $1.7 million; the fire, according to preliminary reports in both tabloids, probably started after Borcino and Badger had finished wrapping gifts around 3 a.m. and disposed of some hot fireplace ash near the side of the house before going to bed. Sources tell both papers the ash continued to smolder and made its way into the house very quickly. It isn't known whether there were armed smoke detectors in the house but the first call to emergency services came not from the Badger house but from a neighbor who heard the screams and saw the smoke and flame.

Daily News: "MOM TRIED TO SAVE THEM" reads the headline on the front of the News, focusing on one of the heroic moments witnessed by emergency workers at the scene of the blaze. "Pulled from roof as she screams to get help for kids; probers eye Yule log as likely cause of deadly fire."

The News offers the same family photo; a red box advertises "CONN. CHRISTMAS HORROR BLAZE" and a two-page spread. In the News, it is the mother who's singled out, though the same stories of efforts by the grandfather and boyfriend appear on the inside.

The News diverts our attention from the story, however, with a skybox above the flag advertising a story about a frenzy at Saks. I can't help but wonder whether reporters who went to the store Monday to talk to coworkers of the tragic grandfather actually stumbled across this along the way and sent in copy. There were no police reports, and Saks security did not really have to do much to quell the crowd that began fighting over places in line at a four-hour fancy-shoe sale.

Observations: I really can't help but wonder how in any circumstances this Saks shoe-sale frenzy goes on the front. But today, especially, it seems a gruesome choice. Both newspapers are trying to bring readers more background on the lives of the people who died in the Stamford fire; one focuses on the efforts of the survivors to save those who died, the other promises more of a profile of the dead. It's hard to know which we are more likely to go to. But I think "SHOE-DOWN AT SAKS 5TH AVE." really takes the News' treatment down a notch, and on a close day that's enough.

Winner: New York Post.