Report details fire that killed Zappos founder Tony Hsieh
New London — With a limousine waiting to take him to the Groton airport, visionary tech entrepreneur Tony Hsieh told his brother he wanted someone to come back and check on him in five minutes.
Hsieh had been holed up in the pool equipment shed for three hours following an argument with his friend, Rachael Brown, who owned the house at 500 Pequot Ave. Witnesses said the fight was over the cleanliness of the home. He had been asked to leave.
It was 3:20 a.m. on Nov. 18, 2020, and the group of people staying at the home — a mix of family members, friends and employees — was preparing for a trip to Maui, Hawaii.
Hsieh never made it to the limo.
The city Fire Marshal’s Office and police department on Tuesday released new details of the fire that led to the death of Hsieh, the 46-year-old millionaire and founder of the online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos. Investigators pieced together events that morning through witness statements and audio and video recordings.
Just one minute after Tony spoke to his younger brother Andrew, smoke began rising from the shed and a carbon monoxide alarm sounded. By 3:22 a.m., the 20-pound propane tank inside the shed could be heard hissing, releasing gas through a relief valve designed to open when pressure builds up inside.
New London Fire Marshal Vernon Skau, who investigated the cause of the fire with help from police and Fire Inspector David Heiney, said the gas likely accelerated the spread of the fire.
The scene turned chaotic when others noticed the smoke. Hsieh wasn’t answering from inside the shed as friends and family tried unsuccessfully to break open the door with a fire extinguisher. The door was locked with a keypad-activated deadbolt.
Someone from the home called 911 and was on the phone with an emergency dispatcher while someone was yelling the combination to the keypad lock that would release the deadbolt and unlock the shed door.
“We need help as soon as possible. Someone is locked in a room with a fire,” says a woman who identifies herself as Elizabeth Pezzello in one 911 call. “Please hurry up. Please hurry up. This is urgent,” she tells the dispatcher and sounds as if she is crying.
“Rachael. Rachael. We really need help. Is there a code to the storage room? Tony is locked in there,” she says to someone else at the home.
A woman is heard in the background yelling the code, “1014” and giving instructions how to open the door. A man is heard yelling “Tony!” and “get the shovel.”
Those at the home were unable to get the door open and one man, Daniel Park Elmhorst, told investigators he went into the basement and used a hammer to smash through a window that had been walled over when the adjoining pool shed was built.
“Flames started to come through the window from the inside,” Elmhorst told investigators. He used an extinguisher on the flames but said the smoke and ash was too much for him to climb through into the shed.
Firefighters arrived at the scene, forced open the door to the shed with an ax and prying tool and were met with a thick black smoke. Hsieh, who was lying unconscious on a blanket inside, was pulled out and taken to the hospital. He died Nov. 27.
The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled his death accidental, caused by complications of smoke inhalation.
Cause of fire 'undetermined'
Police concluded there was no criminal aspect to the fire. Toxicology reports have not yet been released. The cause of the fire was officially ruled “undetermined.” Investigators were unable to eliminate any of the possible causes of the start of the fire. Candles, a propane tank and smoking materials were found among the burned debris inside the shed, which included charred and melted pool chairs and foam swimming pool noodles.
The fire marshal also did not rule out carelessness or an intentional act on Hsieh’s part. The investigation and surveillance footage reviewed as part of the report revealed that there had been a small fire started in the shed earlier that morning when Hsieh apparently lit a plastic bag with Post-it notes inside on fire.
Hsieh’s employees, at Hsieh’s direction, had been checking in on him every 10 minutes and at one point noticed a candle inside was burning a blanket near Hsieh. He put it out, but later surveillance footage captured a discussion between Hsieh and two others about Hsieh lighting the Ziploc plastic bag on fire.
“You’re going to smoke yourself out,” Anthony Hebert, Hsieh’s personal assistant, can be heard saying in the video. “That’s poison.”
“It’s poison but I used it to light a fire,” Hsieh responded.
It was 34 degrees outside and Hebert told investigators Hsieh had lit the fire inside to stay warm.
Hebert later brought Hsieh the propane tank with an attached heater. Investigators said it looked as though the heating element on the propane tank had been dismantled. Video footage shows Hsieh, at 3:15 a.m., moving the tank outside of the shed but it became caught in a pool hose and he couldn’t close the shed door. He dragged it back inside.
Hsieh was an entrepreneur who sold his first company, LinkExchange, to Microsoft in 1998 for $265 million. He started Zappos in 1999 and sold it for a reported $1.2 billion in 2009. He had retired from the company earlier in 2020. Published reports paint the picture of a troubled man coping with mental health and substance abuse issues. Friends and family reportedly had attempted an intervention at one point.
A Dec. 4 profile of Hsieh in Forbes, titled “Tony Hsieh’s American Tragedy: The Self-Destructive Last Months of the Zappos Visionary,” reported that Hsieh had been increasingly using “whippets,” inhaling nitrous oxide cartridges for a high. He also reportedly was paying people to come stay with him in Park City, Utah.
Fire investigators theorized that Hsieh would have been “impaired or intoxicated” at the time of the fire. Inside the pool shed, fire investigators said they found several Whip-It brand nitrous oxide canisters and a whipped cream dispenser, a marijuana pipe, cigarette butts and Fernet-Branca liqueur bottles.
Friends and employees at the home said the fact that Hsieh went into the shed wasn’t particularly unusual but did note that he had been distraught over the recent loss of his dog. Hebert, Hsieh’s assistant, said he had never heard Hsieh make any suicidal or homicidal statements.
It wasn’t the first time firefighters had been to the home. Two days before the Nov. 18 fire, firefighters had twice responded to the 500 Pequot Ave. home for a fire alarm. Firefighters, on the second response, had discovered smoke in the basement, melted plastic on the stove and an unattended candle “burning in an unsafe location.”
Brown, 47, who once lived in southeastern Connecticut, purchased the home for $1.3 million last summer. She is a former Zappos employee who rose to prominence within the company and spearheaded its training programs. She also is a well-known cellist in Las Vegas who was reportedly dating Hsieh.