Fire investigators on Wednesday said the owners of an Annapolis area mansion appear to have tried to save their four young grandchildren before succumbing to smoke and heat last winter during Anne Arundel County's deadliest blaze in decades.
The final 43-page report on the Childs Point Road fire, released Wednesday morning, concluded the blaze started when a corroded electrical outlet in the floor ignited a Christmas tree skirt, sending flames quickly up the tree and into the rest of the house during the early-morning hours of Jan. 19.
It occurred after Christmas tree lights on the dried 15-foot Fraser fir had been left on continuously for six weeks, which heated the outlet that sparked the blaze, according to the report.
Investigators said homeowner Don Pyle, a 63-year-old software executive, appears to have tried to extinguish the blaze while his wife, Sandra Pyle, 56, rushed to save the grandchildren in their guest bedrooms. All six died.
"The whole sequence of events was horrendous," said county fire department Capt. Russ Davies.
The final report on the four-alarm fire, compiled by county fire investigators and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, sheds more light on the incident that drew national attention. The fire caused an estimated $16 million to $18 million in damages.
The blaze also has prompted county officials to launch a campaign on Christmas tree safety this coming holiday season. Federal officials, meanwhile, are encouraging people to make sure their trees are properly watered.
"Hopefully we can prevent something like this from happening again in the future," said special agent David Cheplak, ATF spokesman.
The fire was reported around 3:30 a.m. as the Pyles were inside the home with grandchildren Alexis Boone, 8, Kaitlyn Boone, 7, Charlotte Boone, 8, and Wesley Boone, 7.
The children were spending the night after going to Medieval Times at Arundel Mills. They didn't have school Jan. 19 because of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.
The first call to 911 came from the Pyles' alarm company. Smoke detectors had been triggered on the first and second floors, and in the basement. A gas detector also was triggered.
Calls began coming in from neighbors a short time later.
Dozens of firefighters from Anne Arundel County, Annapolis and the Naval Academy arrived and spent hours battling the blaze. It was placed under control shortly after 7 a.m. Much of the house, which didn't have a sprinkler system, collapsed into the basement.
"A sprinkler system may not even have had an effect, based on the intensity of the fire," Cheplak said.
After controlling the fire, firefighters spent the next two days extinguishing hot spots. They also dealt with water in the basement, unstable steel beams and unstable walls, according to the report. About 10 feet of sludge had to be removed from the basement.
"This wasn't a normal residential fire," Cheplak said.
Heavy equipment and cadaver dogs were brought in to search for the bodies. They were located and removed over the next several days.
The body of Don Pyle was found in the collapsed debris of the "great room," where the tree had been. The ceiling was approximately 19 feet high. Sleeping and living areas were connected to the great room.
The bodies of Sandra Pyle, Wesley Boone and Kaitlyn Boone were found in one guest bedroom. The body of Charlotte Boone was found in another guest bedroom. The body of Alexis Boone was found in a third guest bedroom.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore determined the Pyles and their grandchildren died of smoke inhalation and thermal injuries. The Boones were students at Severn School.
"Severn School continues to offer deepest condolences and support to the families," said school spokeswoman Kristyn Kuhn.
The school will create a memorial for the children.
"Something will absolutely happen at the families' wishes and on their timeline," Kuhn said.
Cheplak asked reporters to respect the Boone and Pyle families' privacy and not to contact them. They were briefed on the final report Tuesday evening. Previous attempts to speak with the families have been unsuccessful.
Immediately after the fire, memorials sprang up outside the gate of the home and at a nearby intersection. Hundreds attended a memorial service.
Test burns on Christmas trees were conducted at an ATF laboratory in Beltsville more than two months later. The Pyles' tree had been cut down more than 60 days prior to the fire and was watered about once a week.
A test tree that was watered weekly to mimic the condition of the Pyles' tree ignited in five seconds and reached its peak burning rate in 35 seconds, according to the report. Another tree that was watered weekly ignited in 30 seconds and reached its peak burning rate in 44 seconds.
A tree that was watered continuously over the previous six weeks needed seven minutes to ignite. It eventually self-extinguished.
"If (the Pyles') tree would have been watered on a daily basis it would have made a significant difference," Cheplak said.
Cheplak said furniture and gas in the great room of the Pyles' home on Jan. 19 most likely ignited within a minute as temperatures from the Christmas tree fire reached more than 1,000 degrees Celsius, or more than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
The blaze quickly "went from being a fire in a room to a room that was on fire," he said.
One breath in those conditions would have been enough to overcome the family, fire officials said.
"It looked like the time just worked against them," Davies said.
As many as 15 strands of Christmas lights were plugged into the power strip that was plugged into the floor outlet. The power strip and outlet were covered by a plastic sheet and blanket, which served as the tree skirt.
Watering of the tree may have introduced moisture to areas under the tree and outside the water pan, increasing the possibility of corrosion and resulting in high resistance connections in the outlet, the report states. The continuous electrical draw of the lights, coupled with the high-resistance connections, resulted in the heat that caused the fire, the report said.
The tree and a 7-foot Douglas fir in the bar area of the home were scheduled to be removed a day after the fire.
The final report was anticipated to be released this spring. Its release was delayed, however, as investigators focused their attention on fires set during unrest in Baltimore.
The Childs Point Road fire was the county's deadliest since 11 people died from a fire during an oyster roast in Brooklyn Park in 1956. There have been 10 fire fatalities in the county this year.