Prologue: “A Freak Accident” PROLOGUE “A FREAK ACCIDENT”
New London, Connecticut, November 18–19, 2020
Fire Chief Thomas Curcio drove across the dark neighborhoods of New London, Connecticut, in the early morning of November 18, 2020, the crackling sound of his car scanner the only noise breaking the silence in his SUV.
He had been awakened by a call to his cell phone around 3:30 a.m. by dispatch with reports of a fire and a person trapped inside a house or possibly a nearby structure.
That wasn’t unusual. New London is only six square miles, with a population of about 27,000, but it is a densely populated urban area—“like someone took a slice out of New York City,” his fire marshal, Vernon Skau, likes to tell people. The small department is busy enough on most days, handling about 7,500 calls a year. A large glass cabinet at the fire station showcases pictures and artifacts from some of New London’s most memorable fires, large and small: a blown fuse at a fast-food restaurant that had charred the inside; a Samsung cell phone that had exploded.
Once the largest of a string of affluent coastal towns in southeastern Connecticut, New London has been in decline since the 1980s, when the Crystal Mall opened on the outskirts of town, sucking business away from local shops on State and Bank Streets in the downtown area. A recent attempt to infuse arts into the city stalled during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Chief Curcio was born and raised in New London and has worked at its fire department since he was twenty-two.
As a kid, he pretended to respond to fires using his Matchbox toy cars. He had been given the top job at the department two years earlier,
at an official ceremony covered by the local newspaper.
Fifty-eight now, with salt-and-pepper hair and a pleasing New England accent, Curcio knows many of New London’s residents by name and its streets by heart. The address of the fire, 500 Pequot Avenue, was only half a mile away from his house in a high-end neighborhood of New London. It was the middle of the night and freezing—about 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
He was not the first to arrive. It was a serious incident, and New London’s three fire trucks, including a ladder truck, had been dispatched to the scene. Several police cars and an ambulance had also pulled up in front of a fairly large gray house, not unlike others on the residential street overlooking the water. Curcio knew its previous owner, a local doctor, but not who lived there currently.
If it was a house fire, it didn’t look serious upon arrival. A thin plume of smoke rose from the backyard. The front of the house, with a sloping roof and a round attic window, appeared undamaged. Most of the lights were on, turning the property into a glowing beacon in the middle of a very dark street. Curcio stepped out of his SUV in his firefighting gear and a face mask, a department precaution during the pandemic.
As he hurried across the street, he could see the ambulance crew loading a man on a stretcher into the back of the ambulance. The person appeared to be alive but unconscious, with an oxygen mask strapped around his head.
Curcio didn’t stop to examine him further. His job as chief was to direct the firefighters at the scene while also performing an initial evaluation of what had occurred. He went to the backyard, where several of his colleagues were gathered around a small shed attached to the house.
The shed faced a rectangular pool, which was covered for the winter months, and beyond a short wall at the end of the property, Curcio knew, was the Thames River, although he couldn’t see it in the darkness. In New London, the Thames River spills into Long Island Sound.
The shed was where the man who had been pulled out had been found. He had been lying on a blanket inside, unconscious. The wooden door had been locked, and firefighters had had to pry it open with “forcible hand entry tools” to pull him out, a later fire department report said. “
barricaded,” one rescue worker shouted into her radio to a dispatcher. The man hadn’t been badly burned, and the fire had been put out right away.
Parts of the inside still smoldered, and it was a jumble of beach chairs and long foam floaties used in pools. A propane space heater was partially charred, as was the edge of the blanket the man had been lying on. A candle had tipped over, spilling wax over a plastic ziplock bag stuffed with Post-it notes. Small metal canisters littered the ground that fire investigators later identified as cartridges of
nitrous oxide, the kind you might attach to a whipped cream dispenser, known as whippets. Cigarettes were strewn around, and a pool of Tiki torch fluid had spilled onto the floor. All of those objects Curcio’s department would later describe as possible causes of the fire.
Curcio moved on to the basement of the house, which was attached to the shed and could be accessed by sliding doors from the backyard. The basement could theoretically have been harmed during a fire. It was there that he saw something unusual.
All of the walls of the finished room were covered in bright yellow sticky notes, a mosaic of paper squares that traveled all the way to the ceiling. Words and messages were scrawled on them, but Curcio couldn’t make out what they said. “The man must be a scientist or an engineer,” he thought to himself, “someone who lays out their thoughts on many pieces of paper, like a map.” In addition to his day job, Curcio worked part-time at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital nearby, performing stress tests on patients in the cardiology department. He would sometimes see sticky notes or other scraps of paper tacked up on meeting room walls.
Soon Curcio’s phone lit up with a text message. The New London police chief, also on the scene, had sent the name of the victim to everyone else working there: Tony Hsieh. The chief speculated in his text that he might be the CEO of the online shoe retailer Zappos. Later the fire chief researched Tony more.
He found that Tony Hsieh (pronounced “Shay”) was only forty-six and had become something of a business legend through his nearly two decades at the helm of Zappos, the online shoe company now owned by Amazon. Tony was known worldwide for his radical ideas about company culture and had led a redevelopment of downtown Las Vegas, plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into the downtown area of the city and funding dozens of new companies. Early in his career, before Zappos, he had sold a startup to Microsoft during the internet boom of the 1990s, cementing his reputation as a genius entrepreneur. Later Chief Curcio would ask his wife to buy him a copy of Tony’s best-selling book, Delivering Happiness
, for Christmas. The book, published in 2010, detailed Tony’s life and the company culture at Zappos, inspiring business leaders, government officials, and readers around the world.
Tony’s ties to New London were unclear; the articles Curcio found all showed that Tony lived in Las Vegas but had recently been buying properties in Park City, Utah.
In a later police report, one officer at the scene of the fire had also googled Tony and written the barest of details, likely from his Wikipedia page: Anthony “Tony” Hsieh was an “American Entrepreneur and venture capitalist who has a net worth of $850 million dollars. He was born in Illinois on 12-12-73 and grew up in California. He earned his Computer Science degree at Harvard University. He retired as the CEO of Zappos in August 2020, after 21 years.”
The night of the fire, the firefighters and police noticed three large Mercedes passenger vans, the kind that transport celebrities to events, parked in front of the house on Pequot Avenue. In New London, where the streets are filled with more economical vehicles, they stood out. Inside one of the vans, a group of men and women sat silently, looking shaken.
Curcio and his team soon learned that many of them were employees of the wealthy businessman. The fire department had split up the interviewing with the police, a standard procedure in an investigation with many witnesses. An officer spoke to one of them, Brett Gorman, who described himself as an employee of Tony’s. Gorman said he was engaged to another employee, a young woman named Elizabeth Pezzello.
When the officer asked for more information about Tony, Gorman explained that Tony had several investments in and out of the country. The officer asked him to elaborate, but he just shrugged.
“Does the business have a name?” the officer prodded.
“No,” Gorman replied.
“Well, how does the business make money?”
Gorman laughed. “I don’t mean ‘business’ in that way, as in making money,” he said. “Tony is very rich, and he is retired except for a project we have going on in Utah.”
He, Pezzello, and three other employees, he told the officer, were part of Tony’s “core team.”
The Mercedes vans had been waiting to take them all on a trip to Hawaii.
How does an accomplished chief executive officer, one of America’s most beloved entrepreneurs, end up in a burning shed thousands of miles away from his home city of Las Vegas in the middle of a devastating pandemic?
As reporters at the Wall Street Journal
, we wanted to find the answer. In stories for the Journal
in 2020 and 2021, we explored Tony’s struggles with alcohol and, later, drugs. We deeply examined the entourage who surrounded him in Park City, Utah, during 2020, a group of friends and employees—including his own brother—many of whom enabled Tony’s worsening drug addiction while feeding off his wealth.
But we quickly realized that Tony’s path to the burning shed in New London, Connecticut, was much more complicated and heartbreaking than we had first realized. His journey had actually started years earlier, with a fundamental goal that many people can surely relate to: he wanted to be happy. His desire to achieve happiness, and especially to spread it to those around him, was so great that he staked his entire career, and his livelihood, on that goal. It was his life’s mission, and it was ultimately his downfall.
At Zappos, he infused the company with a culture known for its outrageous parties, constant happy hours, and a list of values that encouraged workers to be “a little weird,” an unusual workplace renaissance he detailed in his book, Delivering Happiness
. Determined to bring joy to people who bought shoes from Zappos and those who worked for him, he believed strongly in the value of customer service and in building a workplace culture that would allow all employees to be themselves.
With the line between friends and employees already blurred, Tony took his happiness goal one step further by empowering his workers to take on more responsibility in a much-watched management experiment called holacracy
. This decentralized organizational theory meant that he refused to adhere to a traditional company structure or the confines of a chief executive officer role; he thought everyone should be empowered to achieve his or her own goals.
In downtown Las Vegas, Tony Hsieh dedicated $350 million of his own fortune to turning the forgotten corner of the city into an urban theme park filled with brightly colored art, bars, and event venues. He wooed entrepreneurs from across the country, investing in their businesses in exchange for their moving to Vegas. He asked his friends and acquaintances, “What do you need to live up to your full potential?” and then gave them the money or time they required. He rarely directed those questions inward, in part to avoid addressing his own problems. He failed to take care of himself.
Tony was endlessly generous. He never asked for anything in return.
Across the tech industry, charismatic, eccentric innovators have often been exalted—lifted up and put onto unrealistic pedestals for the rest of us to admire or vilify. Tony Hsieh was no different, and he was viewed as a sort of business culture messiah, a leader who could solve all the riddles plaguing the workplace. Thousands of business owners, government officials, and academics made the pilgrimage to Zappos each year to learn from his genius.
But the relentless pursuit of happiness has a darker side. Beneath his public, happiness-focused veneer, Tony struggled privately: he had undiagnosed mental health issues and facial recognition problems that he kept hidden from even some of his closest friends. Across Silicon Valley, a work-until-you-break ethos is common as superstar CEOs and founders race to build products they believe will help humanity, whether they are operating social media platforms, renting out coworking space, or selling shoes. There is no time to stop. There is no room to stumble.
Only recently has it become more accepted for high-performing people such as CEOs, celebrities, and athletes—the tennis star
Naomi Osaka and the Olympic gymnast
Simone Biles, for example—to admit that they need a break. There is, however, still a great stigma.
Tony, despite his close friendship with the singer and songwriter Jewel, a mental health expert in her own right, refused to seek help, always believing, as many in the tech industry do, that he could somehow hack his own problems through diet or exercise or cold baths. The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting quarantine away from his closest friends took a terrible toll on him. Tony never married or had children.
Always a heavy drinker—a way of life, particularly at ZapposI
—Tony increased his drinking in the latter years of his life as he continued to ignore his own internal suffering in the pursuit of others’ happiness. Even in his darkest moments, he wanted to make sure that those around him felt they were loved and taken care of.
Ultimately, he turned to drugs—ketamine and nitrous oxide—to help free his mind and to try to find some relief.
His life reached a devastating conclusion in Park City, Utah, where he tried to build a utopian community in 2020. He wanted his loved ones, and the people of the world, to live together free of Covid-19 and achieve the lasting peace he sought. By that time, though, his mental health problems had worsened, and he suffered a series of breakdowns that could no longer be ignored.
By that point in his life, though, a new entourage surrounded him, including his brother. At their best, many of these people, paid handsomely from Tony’s fortune and beholden to a man they worshipped, simply stood by as he unraveled before them. At their worst, others enabled all his most terrible instincts and drug use. By the time he locked himself into a shed in New London, Connecticut, in November 2020 at a house owned by a woman considered to be his “soul mate,” Tony was lost, a wisp of the man so many people had loved.
The man peddling happiness couldn’t make himself happy. By the time his friends and family tried to save him, it was too late.
This is the story of one great and flawed entrepreneur and the long, fateful journey he took to try to make the world a better place. It is also the story of a man who struggled silently with his inner turmoil for decades, even as he was surrounded by dozens of people who loved him and, in the end, some others who didn’t.
More than anything, it is the story of the great desire in all of us to find happiness, and bring happiness to others, at any cost.
Two days after the shed fire in late November 2020, a neighbor, Patricia Richardson, was at her house in New London, which shared a side yard with the site of the shed fire, 500 Pequot Avenue.
The former publisher of the local newspaper, The Day
, Richardson didn’t know her neighbors well, since they were almost never home. When she did see them, they seemed nice, and polite.
A group of them had moved in that September of 2020, but the house appeared to be owned by just one of them,
Rachael Brown, whom Richardson had greeted on several occasions. Brown was a middle-aged woman, friendly enough, with light brown hair that looked like it had been dyed blonde.
One day in the fall of 2020, Richardson had looked down into her side yard to find a small lavender metal canister that fit into the palm of her hand. She had no idea what it was and, after examining it a little, had thrown it away. By that time, she had heard about Tony Hsieh and knew he was somehow affiliated with the property. She’d looked him up but had never seen him.
The house at 500 Pequot Avenue stood empty for weeks at a time, and when Brown was home, she was usually with a small group of people. They were generally quiet, but one time in the fall of 2020 the neighbors were treated to an unusual spectacle. Spotlights were set up on the side of the house, and a wrestling ring was assembled. A group of people came out dressed in costume, including the actor David Arquette. Arquette is a former professional wrestler and a friend of Tony’s, but the neighbors didn’t know that.
On the night of the fire in late November 2020, Richardson woke up to the sound of several people screaming outside. “Tony!” she heard the people yell. “Tony!”
She rushed to open her sliding glass door and looked over her balcony, from which she could see Brown’s backyard. A woman was on the neighbor’s balcony, pacing and yelling “1014!” over and over. Richardson later learned that it was the code to the nearby pool shed. Below, she saw two men clawing desperately at the door of the shed, which appeared to be locked. An alarm blared.
Richardson couldn’t figure out what was going on until she heard one of the neighbors yell something about a fire. She immediately ran back inside and called the police. Later she watched from her yard as thick smoke poured from the shed. It smelled acrid, like an electrical fire.
Across the fence the next morning, she saw one of the neighbors, a man named Anthony Hebert who visited there sometimes with Brown. There was a memorial on their side of the fence, a tacky, brightly colored thing that appeared to be marking a small grave. The memorial included a stack of white rocks, a bird feeder, two Tiki torches, and plastic flowers arranged over an arch.
Hebert greeted her and explained, “Rachael’s dog died. It was really old and blind and sick, and she’s really upset.
“And now her friend…” he trailed off. Richardson told him she had called the police the night before and said she hoped their friend would be okay. The details of who had been pulled from the shed had not yet made national news. Soon reporters from all over the country would be stationed on the residential street, and Richardson would be followed by camera drones as she walked down the beach.
“It was a freak accident,” Hebert acknowledged, “but he’s young. He’s going to be okay.
“It was really just a freak accident.”
- I. Zappos has a drug- and alcohol-use policy that prohibits illegal drug use in the workplace and requires that any alcohol consumption at company offices or at work-related events be done responsibly.