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Christmas Tree Sparked Mansion Fire That Killed 6, Final Report Determines

A 15-foot, aging and dry Christmas tree fueled a massive mansion fire, killing six members of a Maryland family, federal investigators say in a new report.

The family had planned to remove the tree from the house the day after the fire.

Instead, wiring beneath the dried-out tree fueled a fire that spread so quickly the family couldn't escape, investigators have determined after a six-month probe.

The Jan. 19 fire near Annapolis, Maryland, killed Don Pyle, 56; Sandra Pyle, 63, and four of their grandchildren: siblings Alexis and Kaitlyn Boone, 8 and 7; and their cousins, siblings Charlotte and Wesley Boone, 8 and 6.

The family had a functioning alarm system, but a timeline of events in investigators' 43-page report, released Wednesday, shows the fire tore through the house within seconds:

  • 3:28:57 a.m.: "Zone 2 - 1st and 2nd Floor" alert.
  • 3:28:59 a.m.: "Zone 1 - Basement" alert.
  • 3:29:05 a.m.: "Basement - Trouble" alert. Investigators believe this signal meant that the electrical conductor for the device became compromised.
  • 3:29:53 a.m.: Master bedroom gas detector alert
  • 3:30:15 a.m.: Alarm company dispatcher calls the family's home phone and leaves message.

At 3:31 a.m., the alarm company called 911 in Anne Arundel County. The Anne Arundel County Fire Department was dispatched one minute and 19 seconds later, and arrived at about 3:42 a.m.

"I have not ever seen a fire like this," said Capt. Russ Davies of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, "where the smoke alarm activated and the fire progressed so fast that an entire family was not able to escape in time."

"This fire was so intense, so hot and spread so quickly that nobody in the house had an opportunity to escape, and it explains why all six victims perished," said David Cheplak, a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The massive tree was watered only weekly. As part of the investigation, the ATF conducted controlled burns, and found that a tree watered daily took seven minutes to ignite a dangerous fire. A tree watered only weekly, however, erupted in 30 seconds into flames that could be dangerous.

"The main takeaway is that Christmas trees are safe," Davies said. "But there has to be vigilance in watering them, probably on a daily basis."

Firefighters who responded to the blaze were forced to evacuate from the home just five minutes after entering. The fire would ultimately go to four alarms and would take more than three hours to get under control.

Investigators have concluded the fire was accidental. Wednesday's report confirmed results of a preliminary investigation in the weeks after the blaze.

Other potential causes were identified and analyzed, but all were eventually discarded, said the report released by the ATF and the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.

The family's 15-foot tree -- one of two in the home -- was cut down Nov. 14, 2014, about nine weeks earlier, and provided fuel for the massive fire, the report said. It was three to four feet from the ceiling of the mansion's great room and may have been touching the drapes.

According to the report, people familiar with the mansion said the family's two Christmas trees had been "steadily dropping needles" and the branches were drooping.

People who worked for the Pyles said Sandra Pyle knew the trees were dry, but the couple "wanted to keep the tree in the Great Room longer because they felt like they hadn't had a chance to enjoy it; however, both trees had been scheduled to be removed for Tuesday, January 20, 2015." The fire occurred in the early-morning hours of Jan. 19.

The tree had been decorated with about 1,500 lights in strands of 100. No more than five strands were connected, and each group of lights were plugged into individual receptacles on an extension cord. The lights were left on continuously, investigators say.

Investigators found a "highly localized" melted plug within an electrical outlet in debris in the area where the Christmas tree had been. That was the cause of the fire, investigators said.

"The failure in that outlet ultimately led to the Christmas tree skirt catching on fire, and then on to the tree itself," Cheplak said.

The fire was "a tragic accident that occurred at the absolutely worst possible time, while the Pyles and their grandchildren were sleeping," said ATF Special Agent in Charge Bill McMullan in late January.

The 16,386-square-foot mansion -- which locals referred to as "The Castle" -- was consumed by the blaze, leaving piles of debris, with only chimneys and turrets left standing. The structure was unsafe for investigators to enter until Jan. 21.

The bodies of Wesley and Charlotte Boone found in separate guest bedrooms that day.

In the days that followed, the bodies of Kaitlyn Boone and Sandra Pyle were found in the collapsed debris of same guest bedroom as Wesley. The body of Alexis Boone was found in the area of a third guest room, the report said.

The body of Don Pyle in collapsed debris of the great room, close to where the Christmas tree had been on display.

The victims died of smoke inhalation and thermal injury, investigators say.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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