Fire that killed Zappos founder Tony Hsieh possibly caused by 'carelessness,' 'intentional act': officials
Hsieh was 'trapped' in the pool room of the Connecticut home by shed doors, report says
Connecticut fire investigators have released several hypotheses in connection with the New London fire that killed Zappos founder Tony Hsieh late last year and are considering whether the blaze was caused by the potential misuse of candles, careless disposal of smoking materials or even whether "an intentional act by Hsieh" was to blame.
The 19-page incident report released by the New London Fire Department on Tuesday details how several people, including Tony Hsieh and his brother Andrew, were staying at the home on Pequot Avenue when the fire broke out shortly before 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 18, 2020. Everyone except Tony Hsieh was able to escape.
Hsieh was "trapped" in the pool room, the report states, by shed doors that were "locked with a single keypad deadbolt style lockset."
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Hsieh and the group were scheduled to leave for Hawaii shortly after the fire ignited and a limousine had arrived to take them to the airport at approximately 3:20 a.m., according to a timeline provided by the fire department.
Hsieh, 46, had been staying in the shed-like room after he and the homeowner and his rumored girlfriend, Rachael Brown, had an argument at roughly 11:30 p.m. the night before. She asked him to leave the property until they departed for Maui, and Hsieh relocated to the pool room.
The timeline shows his friends had been checking on him every 10 minutes, including when they told Hsieh it was time to go at 3:20 a.m. At the time, he responded: "Five more minutes."
But by 3:21 a.m., the carbon monoxide detector's alarm had been activated. By 3:24 a.m., a camera positioned at the shed's entrance had failed because of the fire, the timeline indicates. The fire department was called at 3:26 a.m.
Just minutes earlier, at 3:14 a.m., authorities said a crash could be heard inside the shed.
It took six minutes from the first firetruck to arrive on scene for responders to get to Hsieh, the report notes. When firefighters found him, he was "in a supine position on a blanket" inside the shed.
Hsieh "was located with his left side on the blanket and his right side slightly raised with his right arm across his chest," the report describes. "Hsieh was facing toward the two doors that were forced open by the firefighters."
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A sketch released by the fire department shows the flames ignited between Hsieh and his only apparent exit. Candles, a marijuana pipe and cigarettes were found at the scene, according to the report.
His death was deemed accidental and caused by complications from smoke inhalation, officials previously said.
Authorities reportedly do not believe there was criminality involved but said the cause of the fire is so far undetermined. Investigators identified four possible hypotheses, including that the "misuse of candles started this fire," the report states.
"Several candles were found in and around the area of fire origin," the report explains. It notes that one of the other people staying at the house said he checked on Hsieh around 1 a.m. and saw "candles burning and that one of the candles’ started a fire on a portion of a blanket."
The report adds: "The fact that there were candles located in the area of fire origin and the fact that approximately two hours before the fire occurred an accidental fire occurred in a blanket … improper use of candles could not be eliminated as a cause of this fire."
A second of the four hypotheses describes how the fire could have possibly been started by "carelessness or even an intentional act by Hsieh," the report states.
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Investigators discovered a burned plastic bag with singed Post-it notes inside it near the fire area, as well as a gray basket that also contained burned paper.
Authorities reviewed video that indicated Hsieh had lit the plastic bag on fire, officials said.
The discoveries, the report said, are "indicative of a fire setting pattern that could have caused this fire."
Witnesses also told investigators that earlier in the night, they discovered a candle burning a blanket in the shed "in close proximity to Hsieh.
The fire department also said it found "physical evidence to theorize that Hsieh could have been impaired or intoxicated at the time of the fire."
According to the report, authorities discovered "several Whip-It brand nitrous oxide chargers and whipping cream dispenser, a marijuana pipe, and Fernet Branca liqueur bottles." Investigators also found "a plastic bottle of Tiki brand torch fuel" in the area.
"Intoxication can affect an individual’s ability to recognize and react to the hazards presented by the fire," the report explains.
Investigators also say the fire could have started when a propane heater "came into direct contact or into proximity of the heating elements with the nearby combustibles resulting in the fire." The heater was placed on or near a pile of storage near the door and "was located in an area of the most thermal damage and mass loss of material," the report explains.
"This thermal damage and mass loss of material is a result of a fire that occurred in the area near/under the propane tank," the report continues. "The fire heated the propane tank to a point when the relief valve operated as design to [relieve] the pressure in the tank. This resulted in the propane gas flowing from the tank and coming into contact with the open flame."
The report also said one of the two heating elements had been broken or removed and the assembly "was no longer attached to the carrying handle and was in a horizontal position with the heating element lying on the carrying handle."
It describes how there is a "low percentage of possibility" that the fire ignited this way but said the possibility could not be eliminated.
Another hypothesis was that the fire was caused by "carelessly discarded smoking material (either cigarettes or marijuana)."
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Investigators reported finding "several discarded cigarettes" in the area, in addition to the marijuana pipe. But the report also describes how there is a "low percentage of possibility" that the fire started this way.
A spokesperson for Hsieh's family said they would not comment "as they continue to grieve."
The spokesperson added: "Right now and for the foreseeable future, they’re focused on their work to continue Tony's legacy."