A faulty electrical outlet and two-month-old Christmas tree caused a massive fire that destroyed an Annapolis area mansion and left six people dead, fire investigators said Wednesday.
The electrical failure ignited the skirt of the 15-foot tree during the early morning hours of Jan. 19, Anne Arundel County fire department Capt. Russ Davies said. Flames then spread quickly to the tree and nearby furnishings.
The tree “fueled” the blaze, said county Fire Chief Allan Graves, and fire spread to the rest of the house within 2 to 3 minutes.
“The involvement of the Christmas tree explains the heavy fire conditions found by the first arriving fire crews,” Graves said.
Six people died in the fast-moving fire on Childs Point Road.
The victims were identified through forensic evidence as homeowners Don Pyle, 56, and Sandra Pyle, 63. The couple and their four grandchildren — Severn School students Lexi Boone, 8, Katie Boone, 7, Charlotte Boone, 8, and Wes Boone, 6 — were asleep inside the home when it caught fire.
Investigators said they don’t yet know the official cause of death.
“While the explanation that has been shared with us today does not bring solace, it does start us down the long road to acceptance,” the Boone and Pyle families said in a statement.
Bill McMullan, 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.”
“Our tragedy has touched many lives in many families, and, in different degrees, is shared by each of us,” the families said in their statement. “Our hope is that our loss will raise awareness that this tragic event could happen to any family.”
Tests will be conducted in Beltsville to help determine what conditions led to the fire, fire officials said. They hope to also find any clues as to what could prevent such future tragedies.
Officials also said they did not yet know what caused the initial spark or flame that consumed the tree, except that it involved an electrical failure. They noted the tree had been cut down more than 60 days before it caught fire, and that trees tend to dry out after that amount of 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,” said county Fire Marshal Scott Hoglander.
Hoglander said if the home had sprinklers, it “without a doubt” would have made a difference.
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 heart-ache 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.”
Severn School 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.”
While the Severn community has mourned the loss of the Boone children, Lagarde said he has begun to see a sense of normalcy return to the school.
Classes and daily routines have resumed, and with that “the familiar sounds of being together — conversations, light laughter, and moments of happiness and joy.”