A Christmas tree that had been cut down more than 60 days earlier fueled a massive mansion fire that killed six family members in Maryland, officials said Wednesday.
The blaze was sparked by an electrical failure and quickly spread flames to the furniture and the family's 15-foot Christmas tree, authorities said Wednesday.
"The involvement of the Christmas tree explains the heavy fire conditions encountered by responding fire crews," Anne Arundel County Fire Chief Allan Graves said at an afternoon news conference discussing the investigation's findings.
The victims have been positively identified as Don Pyle, 56, Sandra Pyle, 63, and four of their grandchildren: sisters Alexis and Kaitlyn Boone, 8 and 7; and their cousins, siblings Charlotte and Wesley Boone, 8 and 6.
The blaze was "a tragic accident that occurred at the absolutely worst possible time, while the Pyles and their grandchildren were sleeping," said Special Agent in Charge Bill McMullan with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Family members of the victims released a statement late Thursday, saying:
"While the explanation that has been shared with us today does not bring solace, it does start us down the long road to acceptance.
"To those who have kept us in your thoughts and prayers, please know how greatly it is appreciated. Your expressions of care and support will always be with us. Likewise, our thoughts and prayers are with you. Our tragedy has touched many lives in many families, and, in different degrees, is shared by each of us. Our hope is that our loss will raise awareness that this tragic event could happen to any family.
"It is our hope that each of you are strengthened in your resolve to cherish your family, friends, and good times. With life so fleeting, make every day and every moment a special time with those you love."
The Christmas tree was located in the family's great room, which had 19-foot ceilings and was surrounded by sleeping and living areas, Graves said.
Sources said earlier Wednesday that investigators had found an electrical issue from an outlet behind the tree, which they recovered after the fire. The outlet powered the tree's 15,000 lights.
However, it remains unknown what caused the tree to ignite. An official said there are several possible scenarios, and investigators will conduct test burns at an ATF lab in Beltsville, Marland.
Reports indicate that the tree had been cut down more than 60 days before the fire, Graves said. Investigators recovered the tree stand and discovered an inch or two of fallen needles.
Authorities believe the fire spread rapidly.
"The fuel load from the Christmas tree itself is... what caused the fire to spread as quickly as it did," said an official.
Investigators have also looked at recent family photos of the tree in the great room and photos taken prior to the blaze.
"...We're aware that Christmas trees, when they're dry, they burn quickly," Graves said. "...Whatever the circumstance in which the Christmas tree ignited, which we believe was electrical in nature, was something that led to the large fire that was found by the crews when they first arrived."
Graves said that the Christmas tree was lit "most of the time."
Investigators found the remains of the final victim Monday, the Anne Arundel County Fire Department said.
The six family members were in the mansion in the 900 block of Childs Point Road in Annapolis when the massive four-alarm fire tore through the home early Jan. 19.
"Life is fragile. Make time today to embrace your loved ones," a statement from the Boone and Pyle families read in part.
The house was equipped with a smoke alarm system monitored by a security company. Investigators said Wednesday that on the morning of the fire, the home's smoke alarm went off at 3:29 a.m.
The alarm company called the house and got no answer. The company then called the Anne Arundel County Fire Department at 3:32 a.m.
Firefighters were dispatched immediately and arrived at 3:42 a.m. During that 10-minute span, a neighbor called 911 about the fire. "The timeline of the rapid fire growth of the fire is defined by that series of events," said an official, who said there is no indication that the smoke alarm system did not work.
The first firefighters to arrive found heavy smoke and fire, and called for backup.
Officials said it's unknown at this point whether the victims tried to get out of the house.
The bodies of Sandy Pyle and two of the couple's grandchildren were found together in a bedroom, sources said. The body of a third child was found in another bedroom, and the fourth child's body was found in a separate bedroom.
Authorities are still working to determine the victims' causes of death.
Alexis and Kaitlyn are the daughters of Randy and Stacey Boone, while Charlotte and Wesley are the children of Clint Boone and his ex-wife Eve Morrison. The children's fathers are the sons of Sandra Pyle and the stepsons of Don Pyle.
The families said in a statement that they "are blessed that so many family, friends, and neighbors have come together for us in our time of need."
The home did not have a sprinkler system. A fire official said sprinklers would likely have made a difference, but the home was built in 2005, before a law was passed requiring them.