From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
This time last year, Matthew Badger was getting ready for a summer of fun on New York's Shelter Island with his three girls-big sister Lily and twins Sarah and Grace.

"We had a boat, and they would drive it," he says. "We'd go fishing. They were all really good fishermen. We would go to the beach. We had a blast."

This summer, there will be no boating, no fishing, no beach. "I'm not going there again," Badger says softly. "Not now anyway. It's too ... them."

Carrying a canvas bag with the name "Lily" stitched onto one side, Badger doesn't try to hide the pain in his green eyes; the cloud of sadness that surrounds him lifts, momentarily, when he shares a funny story, like the time he and Grace were thrown out of an L.A. Lakers game when she kept spilling juice all over the stands. "Before this happened," he says. "I was a regular guy. There was nothing remarkable about me at all. [Now] I'm a guy who lost his girls. That's the difference between me in December and me now."

Before and after. That's how the former television commercial director divides his life now. Six months ago, on Christmas Day, Lily, Sarah and Grace all died in a horrific fire. The Stamford, Conn., house they were staying in with their mother, Matthew's ex-wife Madonna Badger, 48, her boyfriend Michael Borcina and Madonna's parents went up in flames after Borcina-a contractor who was renovating the house-left a bag of fireplace ash in the mud room, according to investigators. Prosecutors have decided not to file criminal charges, but Badger, 47, has hired a private investigator and is exploring a civil lawsuit against the city and its officials. "It's my job," he says, "to find out the truth."

It's also his job, he says, to make sure his daughters' short lives make a difference. That sense of purpose pulled him back from the brink of despair and prompted him to launch the LilySarahGraceFund, a nonprofit focused on bringing arts education to budget-strapped public schools (see box). All three girls, like their father, had dyslexia, and art was a creative outlet and learning tool. After their Jan. 5 funeral, at which Badger was too devastated to speak, "there was a battle going on in my head. It was rage and tremendous loss. [Then] there was the insane amount of love they gave me. I had this love that I was so used to giving them and I had nowhere to put it anymore. As a father I had to make their lives matter."

Their artwork still dots the walls of Badger's New York City apartment, where the girls had their last visit Christmas week. "I haven't touched a thing," he says. He took them shopping to buy presents for their mother and grandparents and even to an 11 p.m. showing of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. "Because I'm Daddy," he says, "I liked to have fun with them." On Dec. 23 he dropped them off at Madonna's, from whom he amicably split in 2008. "They were superhappy," he says. "I kissed them goodbye." Less than 48 hours later there was a phone call, then police at his door. "It ended my life," he says. "I'm a father, I'm a father, I'm a father. I [messed] up. I wasn't there to save them."

The grief, he says, comes in waves: "If I don't cry every day, the waves are bigger. If I cry every day, it is less dramatic. I don't think the loss is ever going away." (His ex-wife, who reportedly has been in a fragile state, did not comment for this story.) And he is haunted by visions of his girls' final moments. When he read recent reports of the tragedy, in which Madonna's parents also perished, "I got taken to that night," he says. "Just the thought that my girls might have suffered or panicked or were running around the house to get out...."

For now, Badger cannot imagine returning to his regular job. He feels best, closest to his daughters, when he's working on the project they inspired. "This is what gets me up in the morning," he says. "I am trying to make up for what three little girls would have done for the planet. I think that's what my girls would have wanted."