The massive house fire that killed a couple and four of their grandchildren near Annapolis last week was caused by a faulty electrical outlet near a 2-month-old Christmas tree, investigators said Wednesday.
An electrical failure ignited the skirt under the 15-foot tree in the great room of the mansion at 936 Childs Point Road during the early morning hours of Jan. 19, Anne Arundel County Fire Department Capt. Russ Davies told reporters. Flames spread quickly to the tree and nearby furnishings.
Fire Chief Allan Graves said the fire spread to the rest of the house within two to three minutes.
"The involvement of the Christmas tree explains the heavy fire conditions found by the first arriving fire crews," Graves said.
The office of the chief medical examiner has identified the victims as homeowners Don Pyle, 56, and Sandra Pyle, 63, and four grandchildren: Lexi Boone, 8; Katie Boone, 7; Charlotte Boone, 8; and Wes Boone, 6. Investigators say they were asleep inside the home when it caught fire.
Investigators said they don't yet know the causes of their deaths.
The Boone and Pyle families said the information released Wednesday "does not bring solace, [but] it does start us down the long road to acceptance."
"Our tragedy has touched many lives in many families, and, in different degrees, is shared by each of us," the families said in a statement. "Our hope is that our loss will raise awareness that this tragic event could happen to any family."
Bill McMullan, the special agent in charge of the Baltimore field office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, called the fire "a tragic accident that occurred at the absolutely worst possible time."
Investigators planned to conduct tests to help determine the conditions led to the fire. They hope to also find any clues that could help prevent similar incidents.
Officials also said they did not yet know how the electrical failure led to the spark or flame that ignited the tree. They said the tree had been cut down more than 60 days earlier, and that trees dry out over time.
"The fuel load from the Christmas tree itself is what created the significant amount of fire and what caused the fire to spread as quickly as it did," county Fire Marshal Scott Hoglander said.
If the home had had sprinklers, Hoglander said, it "without a doubt" would have made a difference.
Fire departments responded to an average of 230 home fires that started with Christmas trees per year from 2007 to 2011, according to the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass.
Such fires caused an average of six deaths, 22 injuries and $18.3 million in direct property damage annually. Electrical problems were factors in a third of Christmas tree structure fires.
"It's surprising how fast these things happen," said James Milke, chairman of the department of fire protection engineering at the University of Maryland. "With all the needles, there's a lot of surface area and not a lot of mass. The flame can very quickly travel from needle to needle, branch to branch."
Smoke detectors might have operated properly, Milke said, "but you had such a rapidly developing fire, the family didn't have time to react."
County Executive Steve Schuh called the fire "an unspeakable tragedy."
"The thoughts and prayers of an entire county go out to the Pyle and Boone families, and to the Severn School community," Schuh said. "As a father of two, I can't imagine the horrendous pain of losing these innocent children. And while I know no words will never be able to relieve the heartache of losing so many loved ones in such a tragic circumstance, I'd like the families to know we stand with them, united, as they work through their grief."
The four children attended the Severn School in Arnold. Headmaster Douglas Lagarde released a statement on Tuesday.
"As a community we are grieving for those we have lost," he said. "We are trying to make sense of a tragedy, and in his or her own way each of us is moving, I hope, toward a loving thankfulness for having known those who passed away. …
"We will continue to heal together in the coming days and weeks and months, and I know I will have occasion again to say thank you to the scores of people who have extended themselves in our time of need. We are fortunate to have each other in such difficult times."
Fire dispatchers began receiving calls about the blaze at about 3:30 a.m. The first call came from the Pyles' home security company.
Davies said the house was "heavily involved" when firefighters arrived, and smoke and flames prevented them from entering.
More than 80 firefighters from several departments worked for 31/2 hours to bring the blaze under control. By then, the home was destroyed.