This story originally appeared on PEOPLE on June 20, 2016.
Madonna Badger is speaking out about the tragic night her three daughters, mother and father all died in a tragic house fire – and how she recovered her will to live.
The advertising executive recalled the 2011 Christmas Eve fire at her Stamford, Connecticut, home that killed her daughters Lily, 9, and twins Sarah and Grace, 7, and her parents Lomer and Pauline Johnson in an emotional talk at Cannes Lions advertising festival reported by Page Six.
“It was Christmas Eve and I stayed up very late wrapping presents, my children were asleep on the third floor, my parents were asleep on the second floor it was our first Christmas in my new house with my children and my mom and dad,” Badger recalled.
“Finally I got to sleep, but there was smoke in my room, and I woke up gasping for air, I went to the window and I opened it and I crawled out of the window onto the roof of a porch and I ran to the far end of the house and I could see sparks flying out of where the electric meter was.”
“So I then made the impossible decision to run past my parents’ window, so that I could go up the scaffolding to get to the third floor, where Grace was asleep. I opened the window, but I could not get in, the smoke was as thick as gravy and the flames were as hot as the flames from hell, and I could not get in, my body would not allow me to get in,” she continued.
“I was screaming, ‘Where are they?’ All of this went by like it was in slow motion, it felt like an eternity, but in reality it was only minutes before the fireman came and dragged me off the scaffolding.”
“My three children died that night, my parents also died, and I lived. I am still their mother, and I am still their daughter I lost everything but I didn’t lose my mind, no matter how many times I wished I had.”
Badger and her then-boyfriend Michael Borcina, who was renovating the home at the time, were the only survivors.
“I felt like killing myself many times, everybody assumed I was going to kill myself, including me. But I was too afraid, that when I got to the other side, that somehow people that kill themselves go to a different place and I wouldn t be able to find my three little girls,” she said. “I was afraid that I’d have to do this life over again and I was not prepared to do that.”
“I am sure now that I am here because of the breath of a million prayers that were sent to me from all over the world I am here because I can feel my children, I am still connected to my children, their love keeps me going, and this connection – it’s different than obviously the one that we had when they were here, but it is just so strong, and some days it can even feel stronger,” she continued.
Badger said that returning to work more than a year after the tragedy afforded her “a sense of dignity.”
“I could see in my work a part of me that I thought I had lost,” she said. “So now I have a new reason to be here, because if I am going to be here, and I am here, then I am going to be here for a reason, I am going to make a difference in this world.”
The co-founder of Badger & Winters agency said she found renewed purpose after examining the “enormous harm” done to women by objectification in advertising. She and her company started the campaign #WomenNotObjects to encourage the advertising industry to treat and depict women as more than mere objects.
“Now I have found my reason to be here, and it gives me a great sense of hope,” she said. “The legacy I want to give Lily, Sarah and Grace is to stop the objectification of women in advertising This is the future I am fighting for.”