Tony Hsieh’s Deadly Evening: An Argument, Medication, a Locked Door and Sudden Fireplace


Tony Hsieh, who developed Zappos into a billion dollar internet shoe store and formulated an influential theory about corporate happiness, purposely locked himself in a shed before it was consumed by the fire that would kill him.

Last November, Mr. Hsieh visited his girlfriend, Rachael Brown, at their new riverside home in New London, Connecticut. After the couple argued over the clutter of the house, Mr. Hsieh set up camp in the attached pool on storage shed, which was full of foam noodles and lounge chairs.

These details were made public in reports released Tuesday by New London Fire Department and police investigators, the first law enforcement reports on the incident. They said Mr. Hsieh was seen on a security video from November 18 that was peeping out the shed door at around 3 a.m. when no one was around. Light smoke rose behind him.

When Mr. Hsieh closed the door, the door lock could be heard and a bolt was pulled.

The 46-year-old entrepreneur was traveling with a nurse. According to police reports, he was planning to go to Hawaii with Ms. Brown, his brother Andrew, and several friends and employees before dawn. While in the shed, he asked to be checked every 10 minutes. His hotel nurse said this was standard practice with Mr. Hsieh.

Investigators said they were unsure of exactly what started the fire, partly because there were too many options. Mr. Hsieh had partially disassembled a portable propane heater. Discarded cigarettes were found. Or maybe the fire broke out from candles. Investigators said his friends told them that Mr. Hsieh liked candles because they reminded him of “an easier time” in his life.

A fourth possibility is that Mr. Hsieh did it on purpose.

“It is possible that negligence or even deliberate act on the part of Hsieh could have started this fire,” the fire report said. The report added that Mr Hsieh may also have been drunk and noted the presence of several Whip-It brand nitrous oxide chargers, a marijuana pipe, and Fernet Branca liquor bottles.

The exact role of drugs or alcohol that night is likely to remain unclear. Dr. Connecticut chief medical officer James Gill said in an email that “autopsy toxicology tests don’t make sense” if the victim survives for an extended period of time. A final report is still pending.

Firefighters who broke open the door found Mr. Hsieh lying on a blanket. He was taken to a nearby hospital and then flown to the Connecticut Burn Center, where he died on November 27 of complications from smoke inhalation.

Mr. Hsieh’s death shocked the tech and entrepreneurial worlds due to his relative youth and his writing about corporate happiness. Zappos was a star of the early consumer Internet, caution persuading that there are few dangers to buying online. Mr. Hsieh became CEO in 2001 and made everyone aware that companies should try to make their customers and employees happy. He moved Zappos from the Bay Area to Las Vegas.

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Jan. 26, 2021, 4:58 p.m. ET

Amazon bought Zappos in 2009 for $ 1.2 billion. The next year, Mr. Hsieh published the bestseller “Delivering Happiness”. “Our goal at Zappos is that our employees see their work not as a job or a career, but as a calling,” he wrote.

Mr. Hsieh stayed in Zappos but turned to a citizen project to revitalize downtown Las Vegas. Lots of investments and many years later, the project was an incomplete success at best. For the past year, Mr. Hsieh has focused on Park City, Utah, where he spent tens of millions of dollars buying real estate and got so manic that friends said they talked about an intervention. Few outsiders knew that he had quietly left Zappos.

On the night of the fire, Mr. Hsieh was desperate about his dog’s death during a trip to Puerto Rico last week, according to police interviews. He and Mrs. Brown had a difference of opinion that escalated. At this point, Mr. Hsieh retired to the shed. An assistant spoke to him frequently and recorded the visits with sticky notes on the door. Mr. Hsieh would generally signal that he is fine.

As the group was preparing to leave for the airport in the middle of the night, Mr. Hsieh asked for a check-in every five minutes. But it was only four minutes before the fire became fatal. Attempts by the residents to break open the locked door were unsuccessful. At about the same time as firefighters arrived, three Mercedes-Benz passenger cars arrived to take the group to the airport.

Ms. Brown, an early employee of Zappos, did not return any comments. A family spokesman also did not respond to a message for comment.

Firefighters regularly visited the house in mid-November. At 1am on November 16, they were called by a smoke alarm connected to a security company. A man who opened the door said the alarm was triggered by cooking, according to department records.

The firefighters left, but returned minutes later, prompted by another smoke alarm. “On arrival found nothing to be seen and a man said again that there was no problem,” wrote Lt. Timothy O’Reilly in a summary of the call. Firefighters said they came in to look around.

Lieutenant O’Reilly and his colleagues found smoke in the finished basement, along with “melted plastic items on the stove along with cardboard that felt hot,” which appeared to be plastic utensils and plates. They also found a burning candle in an “unsafe place” and extinguished it. While the smoke in the basement was dissipating, the firefighters gave fire protection tips.

The investigators’ report also covered an episode in the early evening of November 18. Mr. Hsieh’s assistant checked him out in the shed and saw that a candle had fallen over and burned a ceiling. The assistant asked Mr. Hsieh to put out the flame, and the entrepreneur did.