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ME says Zappos founder Tony Hsieh died of smoke inhalation, ruled accidental

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New London — Tony Hsieh, the 46-year-old founder of the online shoe retailer Zappos, died from complications of smoke inhalation, the Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported on Monday. His death was ruled accidental.

Hsieh was injured in a 3:26 a.m. Nov. 18 fire at a home at 500 Pequot Ave. and died on Friday. His death was reported by DTP Companies, which he founded.

A Broadcastify audio recording of the exchange between the city's emergency dispatchers, firefighters and police reveal that initial reports from the scene were of a fire and a man who had either barricaded himself inside or was trapped in the waterfront home. Firefighters arrived at the home to find individuals outside and Hsieh still inside. Police were called in to assist.

The dispatcher reported to firefighters that the man still inside was in an outbuilding attached to the main part of the home, “and the male is barricaded … he’s not opening the door. Everyone else is outside the house. They’re trying to get him to open up.”

While the dispatcher repeatedly said "barricaded," city police on Monday, in an updated press statement, said first responders learned from people at the scene that Hsieh was locked inside a storage area at the back of the home and they were unable to get him out. Dark smoke was observed coming from the storage area.  

Emergency personnel breached the storage area door, pulled Hsieh out and extinguished the fire, police said.

Fire Chief Thomas Curcio has told The Day that firefighters performed CPR on Hsieh, who was unconscious, and took him to a hospital. Firefighters, in audio recordings of the incident, also reported they were evaluating someone on scene with a hand injury who declined transport to the hospital.

Hsieh was taken by ambulance to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital for treatment of possible burns and smoke inhalation and later flown to Bridgeport Hospital's Burn Center.

The cause and circumstances surrounding the fire remain part of an ongoing investigation by the city fire marshal’s office and city police detectives.

The five-bed, four-bath home was purchased by Rachael Anne Brown in August for $1.3 million. A woman by that name was listed as an employee in a zappos.com posting last year titled "Meet The Women Who've Changed Zappos History." According to the Zappos website, a Rachael Brown who worked at Zappos was one of the company’s first 100 employees in 2004, hired as a temporary representative over the phone. After two months in that role, she was asked by Hsieh to lead a team to teach employees the “company culture.” Brown is also a celebrated cellist.

Brown began to host onboarding programs about Zappos’ culture that became mandatory for every employee in the company, not just those working in customer service. According to Zappos, Brown left the training team in 2010 to oversee the production of Zappos' quarterly all-hands meetings.

Brown is a cellist with the Bella Electric Strings ensemble in Las Vegas, according to the musical group’s website. According to a Facebook profile, Brown lives in Las Vegas, where Zappos is headquartered, and is from Niantic. Property records did not indicate that Brown ever owned property in East Lyme.  

Hsieh retired from Zappos in August. Zappos was sold to Amazon for $1.2 billion in 2009, but Hsieh had remained with the company until his retirement. He was a 1995 graduate of Harvard University and according to his LinkedIn profile, his business mantra was to “Inspire, Connect, Educate and Entertain.”

In a statement, Zappos said “though Tony retired this past summer, we know what a tremendous impact he has had on both Zappos and on Zapponians, as he has dedicated the past 20 years focusing on the success of both the company and our employees.”

The company called its former leader “a tremendous visionary and an incredible human being.”

“We recognize that not only have we lost our inspiring former leader, but many of you have also lost a mentor and a friend. Tony played such an integral part in helping create the thriving Zappos business we have today, along with his passion for helping to support and drive our company culture.”

Hsieh also founded a Las Vegas company called DTP, a for-profit venture that was started in 2012 with the goal of revitalizing downtown Las Vegas. 

Megan Fazio, spokeswoman for DTP companies, shared a statement on Instagram about Hsieh’s passing in which she described the businessman as a “Humanitarian. Forward thinker who saw happiness ahead of dollars. Bridged businesses, community & all walks of life. Visionary.”

Fazio wrote that Hsieh revitalized downtown Las Vegas and believed in people’s passions and was deeply loved. 

“There is no human that met Tony [and] didn’t fall in love with his humanity,” she said. 

Fazio said that much of DTP’s success was due to Hsieh and his vision. 

Fazio, who worked with Hsieh as a publicist for DTP, recalled memories of Hsieh handing out food from fast food chain White Castle to “deliver happiness” to people, an ode to Hsieh's bestselling book "Delivering Happiness: A path to profits, passion, and purpose," which was published in 2010. She said he always treated his employees as his equals and loved “experiences & relationships over material things.”

She also described Hsieh as having a “childlike wonder” and said that the people in his life were fiercely protective of him. 

“Those close to him protected him at all costs, because his kindness was so exceptional,” she wrote. 

In a statement, Zappos said they are working on ways to celebrate Tony’s “extraordinary life” and invited people who knew Tony to share their memories of him by sending them to CelebratingTony@zappos.com. The memories will be shared with Hsieh’s family, the company said. 

g.smith@theday.com

t.hartz@theday.com

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