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Ex-Zappos CEO locked himself in shed with liquor, 'whippets' before fatal fire

The fire that killed Tony Hsieh may have been caused by “carelessness or even an intentional act,” investigators said in a report released Monday.
Tony Hsieh speaks in 2013.
Tony Hsieh speaks in 2013.Cory Morse / AP file

Former Zappos chief executive Tony Hsieh locked himself inside a backyard shed – surrounded by bottles of liquor, a marijuana pipe, nitrous oxide cartridges and a whipped cream dispenser – in the minutes before he was found unconscious from smoke inhalation, according to a fire department report released Tuesday.

The report by the New London Fire Department in Connecticut offers the most extensive account to date of the circumstances of Hsieh’s death last November.

But fire investigators said they were unable to determine if “carelessness or even an intentional act by Hsieh” could have started the fire. And they noted that the existence of drugs and alcohol suggests the 46-year-old entrepreneur may have been impaired or intoxicated at the time of the fire, which could explain why he didn’t react when the blaze started.

The Connecticut state medical examiner’s office has ruled Hsieh’s death as accidental. He died from complications of smoke inhalation nine days after he was pulled from the shed.

The backyard shed where Tony Hsieh was found unconscious from smoke inhalation in New London, Conn.
The backyard shed where Tony Hsieh was found unconscious from smoke inhalation in New London, Conn.New London Fire Department

In the days after Hsieh’s death, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes quoted Hsieh’s friends as saying that he had been in a spiral of alcohol and drugs – including the use of “whippets,” the inhaling of nitrous oxide cartridges like those found in whipped cream containers.

New London Fire Marshal Vernon Skau, speaking at a Monday press conference, said Hsieh went into the shed that night after getting into an argument with the owner of the home, who has been identified as a former Zappos executive.

Hsieh was staying at the home along with his younger brother Andrew and several other people, according to the report. They were slated to leave early in the morning for a trip to Hawaii, and the owner of the home had told Hsieh to leave the property until their departure for Maui, the report says.

Hsieh went into the shed shortly before midnight. Sometime before 3 a.m. on Nov. 17, one of Hsieh’s friends checked on him inside the 300 square-foot shed and noticed that a candle was burning a blanket close to Hsieh, the report says.

The friend, Anthony Hebert, asked Hsieh to put out the candles, and he did, the report says.

A security camera captured a discussion between Hsieh and Hebert in which Herbert could be heard saying, “You’re going to smoke yourself out,” and, “That’s poison,” the report says.

Hsieh responded: “It’s poisonous but I used it to light a fire,” according to the report.

The surveillance video showed Hsieh opening the shed door about 3:15 a.m. No one was outside, but an “occasional light smoke” was “wisping from the door,” according to the report.

“It appears as though there was an incipient fire within the shed at that time,” the report says.

Hsieh attempted to close the door but couldn’t shut it fully because the pool vacuum hose was in the way. He moved a propane heater outside the shed, but brought it back in shortly afterward.

The security camera footage showed “an increase in smoke emanating from the shed along with burning embers,” the report says.

Tony Hsieh's house in New London, Conn.
The shed where Tony Hsieh was found unconscious, right, at a house in New London, Conn.New London Fire Dept.

Hsieh, despite the presence of smoke, closed the door. Investigators said they could hear in the surveillance footage the sound of a dead bolt latching from within the shed.

At 3:20 a.m., Hsieh’s brother Andrew knocked on the door and told him it was time to go. From inside the shed, Hsieh could be heard in the video footage telling his brother to come back in five minutes, the report says.

Smoke filled the view of the camera one minute later followed by the sound of a carbon monoxide alarm in the shed. A minute later, a sound is heard indicating that the relief valve on the propane tank was “actuated to relieve pressure from within the tank,” according to the report.

The video shows a dramatic escalation in the smoke emanating from the shed and at 3:24 a.m., the feed went dead, the report says.

One of the friends told investigators that he and Andrew returned to the shed around that same time and tried to break down the door.

Firefighters arrived within minutes and forced open the door. Hsieh was found lying face up on a blanket. He was rushed to a nearby hospital and then airlifted to the Connecticut Burn Center, where he died on Nov. 27.

In addition to the drug paraphernalia and bottles of Fernet Branca liqueur, fire investigators discovered inside the shed several discarded cigarettes and several candles, the report says.

It’s possible that the fire was started by the misuse of candles, a carelessly discarded cigarette, or as a result of the portable heater coming into contact with “nearby combustibles,” the report says.

Hebert did not respond to a request for comment. A lawyer for Hsieh’s family did not respond to a request for a comment.