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Tech entrepreneur Tony Hsieh’s death little noticed in former whaling town

NEW LONDON, Conn. — A cold stinging rain battered this town days after a fire ripped through a storage area of an affluent waterfront home that led to injuries that took the life of Las Vegas tech entrepreneur Tony Hsieh.

Although Hsieh, 46, was known throughout the states, no one in this waterfront community really knew he was here.

A multi-millionaire who infused a development spark to crumbling downtown Las Vegas, Hsieh was hailed nationally as a visionary and remembered by employees and those who knew him back West.

“I can’t even grasp it. So devastating. He was so kind,” Jana Francis of Salt Lake City, who founded Steals.com, said on Twitter.

Hsieh pumped life into downtown Las Vegas through investments and projects to revitalize an area of town overshadowed by the glittery Strip.

But he died a tragic death in this aged, former whaling town in New England.

New London is a landmark to a centuries old industry no longer in existence along the rocky coastline where winter storms roll in with cold rain and snow.

It hums along with General Dynamics Electric Boat, a submarine contractor, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

People in New London, population 27,000 according to the 2010 Census, appeared surprised to learn from the media about Hsieh, his death, and his place as an internet icon who turned Zappos into a successful business before he sold it to Amazon for $1.2 billion.

“I’m 44, I lived here all my life, I didn’t know he lived here,” said Jamie, a waitress at Mr. G’s Restaurant and Bar, a blue-collar diner that sells grinders, gyros and pizza. “I even bought his shoes.”

“Maybe he was just here visiting,” another waitress chimed in.

Indeed. A spokeswoman for a company Hsieh founded in Las Vegas said he was visiting family and friends.

One of those friends, Rachael Brown, worked with Hsieh at Zappos and was a cellist in Las Vegas. She also is from Connecticut, and reportedly from Niantic, which is about 10 miles from New London along the coastline.

Property records here show Brown bought the home in New London in August for $1.3 million — a not uncommon price for the area.

“Since COVID, real estate has gone up,” said Robert Bono, who was walking his dog along the private beach a mile or so from Brown’s home. “People trying to get away from the city.”

New London sits at the mouth of the Thames River and Long Island Sound. It’s straight up Interstate 95 from New York City.

“They are flooding out of New York and coming here,” said Christine Castronova, of Waterford, who used to work for General Dynamics.

She was on a daily walk, and passed the home on Pequot Avenue where Hsieh was injured in the fire. Castronova was unaware that the residence she passed is where the fire occurred.

Firefighters were called to the home at nearly 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 18. Hsieh was found unconscious in a storage area at the home.

He could not be revived and was sent to a local hospital, before being airlifted to a burn unit at a medical center in Bridgeport an hour away.

Hsieh died from complications of smoke inhalation 10 days later at the Bridgeport hospital. He was surrounded by family, a spokeswoman said. The Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled the death an accident.

Several other people staying at the home survived the fire. None have spoken publicly about the incident.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation by police and the fire marshal.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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