Evacuation in Athens lifted; fertilizer building still cordoned - FOX Carolina 21

Evacuation in Athens lifted; fertilizer building still cordoned off

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The fire rages on Thursday evening. The fire rages on Thursday evening.
Crews working the scene on Friday morning (Source: KLTV Staff) Crews working the scene on Friday morning (Source: KLTV Staff)
ATHENS, TX (KLTV) - A day after flames shot into the downtown Athens sky, little remains of the former site of East Texas AG supply.

At a press conference in Athens on Friday, Athens Fire Chief John McQueary announced that a fertilizer storage facility that caught fire near downtown Athens would be treated as a crime scene.

The fire chief said the owner of the fertilizer facility, located at 105 Larkin St., left the building at 5:15 on Thursday evening. The fire department responded to the facility 32 minutes later, at 5:47 p.m. Because of the the rapid onset of the fire, authorities are investigating the incident for criminal activity.

According to McQueary, 70 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer had just been received at the facility. The facility was also storing 100,000 pounds of pot ash.

When fire crews arrived at the facility on Thursday evening, the fire had already broken through the roof. The fire chief deemed it valuable to evacuate his crews and nearby community members because of the magnitude of the fire. Emergency dispatch called all available authorities to help in the door-by-door evacuation.

A command post was set up to observe the fire. Authorities thought the structure would collapse and hoped the ammonium nitrate fertilizer would self-extinguish, as it often does. After about 30 minutes, the roof collapsed on top of the flames and there was no detonation. At that point, crews became concerned that the ammonium nitrate would produce its own oxygen and continue to smolder.

Not all of the fertilizer burned - a look at the site on Friday showed the white powdery substance still intact in some spots. The remaining walls will be torn down to prevent collapse.

State agencies arrived Thursday night to monitor the air quality. They determined there was little to no toxicity in the air, but are continuing to monitor the situation. Residents were allowed to return to their homes and businesses on Friday morning. The facility is still cordoned off in a one-block radius as crews work to secure the scene. Members of the state fire marshal's office along with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were on scene all day on Friday and  will begin investigating the blaze once the hazards have been mitigated.

The fire chief spoke passionately during the press conference about how his department did the best they could to prepare for this type of event. After the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, the department researched and trained firefighters on the hazards of dealing with ammonium nitrate fertilizer.
He added that officials will work to evaluate what went right and what went wrong. They will then use that information to help other fire departments prepare for similar situations.

"As soon as we learned about West, we focused more on this particular facility because we knew it was in close proximity to our town," said McQueary. "Yes, he had deficiencies. We inspected that facility with a greater eye and and a greater focus and we corrected those deficiencies."

Athens Mayor Jerry Don Vaught praised firefighters and other emergency responders for all their work in handling and containing the situation.

Earlier this year, a Mexican restaurant next door to the plant went up in flames. The fertilizer building did not catch fire, though it was a concern voiced by residents.

City leaders knew about the dangerous chemicals being stored in the city's center, but say they never had a problem at the site until Thursday.

"I felt like it has been safe for many years. It's been over 50 years since it was there," said Vaught. "It has always been a safe situation until what happened in West, which has educated us all."

All Athens schools opened as normal on Friday. None of the campuses are within the evacuated perimeter. City buildings were closed on Friday as officials worked to return Athens to a safe atmosphere for the residents.

Trinity Valley Community College activated its TVCC Alert system as a precaution to notify staff and students of the situation. Students who live on campus were bused to a neighboring city Thursday and stayed overnight in a hotel.

McQueary asked that anyone with photos or videos of the fire contact Rachel Marino at the state fire marshal's office by calling 979-277-4278.

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