Couple tried to save four grandchildren in mansion fire

Baltimore Sun Media Group

When the tall, dry Christmas tree in Don Pyle's mansion outside Annapolis erupted in flames early on Jan. 19, the 63-year-old software executive ran to battle the blaze, authorities believe.

His wife, 56-year-old Sandra Pyle, went to rescue four young grandchildren sleeping in guest bedrooms.

All six succumbed to smoke and heat before flames destroyed the 16,000-sqaure-foot waterfront home on Childs Point Road in Anne Arundel County's deadliest fire in nearly half a century.

"It happened so quickly that they had no chance," said Dan Cheplak, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In a report released Wednesday, authorities concluded that the blaze started when a corroded electrical outlet ignited the skirt under the 15-foot Fraser fir tree, sending flames up the tree, through the mansion's great room and into the rest of the structure.

The 43-page report was compiled by the ATF and county fire investigators who studied the burned-out mansion and conducted test burns at the ATF's national Fire Research Laboratory in Beltsville.

They said 1,500 incandescent Christmas lights on the tree had been left on continuously for six weeks, heating the outlet that sparked the blaze.

Cheplak said the tree ignited to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Officials said one breath in those conditions would have been enough to overcome the family.

"The whole sequence of events was horrendous," county fire Capt. Russ Davies said. "Time just worked against them."

The body of Don Pyle was found in the room where the tree had stood. The bodies of Sandra Pyle, Wesley Boone, 7, and Kaitlyn Boone, 7, were found in a guest bedroom near the great room. The bodies of Charlotte Boone, 8, and Alexis Boone, 8, were found in other guest rooms.

Cheplak said members of the Boone and Pyle families were briefed on the report Tuesday. A family spokesperson said Wednesday they would have no statement.

The report, which was delayed a month as ATF officials worked on cases related to the fires during the April riots in Baltimore, provided new details on the blaze that caused an estimated $16 million to $18 million in damage and drew national attention.

Officials said the family Christmas tree was installed Dec. 8 and the lights remained lit until the fire.

Monday, Jan. 19 was Martin Luther King Jr. Day; the children had the day off from school. On Sunday, they visited the Medieval Times restaurant at Arundel Mills and then slept over at their grandparents' home.

The fire was reported around 3:30 a.m. Smoke triggered detectors in the basement and on the first and second floors, and the Pyles' alarm company contacted 911.

Neighbors began calling 911 a short time later.

Dozens of firefighters from Anne Arundel County, Annapolis and the U.S. Naval Academy arrived within about 10 minutes, according to a timeline released with the report.

"There was nobody alive in that house by time fire department showed up," Cheplak said.

Firefighters spent hours battling the blaze, and two more days extinguishing hot spots. They faced unstable steel beams and walls. About 10 feet of sludge had to be removed from the basement.

"This wasn't a normal residential fire," Cheplak said.

The house did not have a sprinkler system. Cheplak said Wednesday that such a system "may not even have had an effect, based on the intensity of the fire."

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore determined the causes of death as smoke inhalation and thermal injuries.

It was the county's deadliest fire since 1956, when 11 people died in a blaze during an oyster roast in Brooklyn Park.

Investigators said a test tree watered weekly to mimic the condition of the Pyles' tree ignited in five seconds and reached its peak burning rate in 35 seconds. A tree watered continuously over six weeks needed seven minutes to ignite, and eventually extinguished itself.

"If [the Pyles'] tree would have been watered on a daily basis," Cheplak said, "it would have made a significant difference."

As many as 15 strands of Christmas lights were plugged into a power strip that was plugged into a floor outlet, investigators found. The power strip and outlet were covered by a plastic sheet and blanket that served as a tree skirt.

The continuous electrical draw of the lights coupled with the connections caused the heat that caused the fire, investigators concluded.

County officials have launched a campaign on Christmas tree safety. Federal officials are encouraging people to make sure their trees are properly watered.

"Hopefully we can prevent something like this from happening again in the future," Cheplak said.

The family planned to take their tree down on Jan. 20 — the day after the blaze.

As the day neared, investigators said, branches were drooping and needles were falling.

"Don and Sandy Pyle both wanted to keep the tree in the great room longer," they wrote, "because they felt like they hadn't had a chance to enjoy it."

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