ATHENS — A pile of rubble and ash were all that remained Friday of the East Texas Ag Supply Center, which had just received 70 tons of ammonium nitrate the day before, when a raging fire broke out.
The fire began about 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the facility at 105 Larkin St., causing fire and emergency officials to quickly evacuate residents within a three-block radius around the storage facility, nestled in the downtown area just yards from county and city offices and dozens of businesses.
“We are a small department with limited resources, but we felt like we had to get as many people out in as little time as possible. That was our goal,” Athens Fire Chief John McQueary said. “When more resources arrived on the scene, that is when we extended the area to a five block radius around the fire.”
McQueary and Athens Mayor Jerry Don Vaught held a news conference Friday.
Vaught said the cordoned-off area had been moved to include a block radius around the site, but that was to keep the scene pristine in case it was a crime scene.
McQueary said earlier that the fire was being treated as a crime scene.
“Anytime you have a fire of that magnitude that was reported to the owner after he left, and 30 minutes later we have a fire shooting through the roof, and its engulfed at least half or better, we consider any fire like that suspicious,” he said. “It might be something simplistic. We may not have anything, but we have to treat it that way. If we don’t, then we have destroyed the crime scene and we have no recourse to go back and capture that stuff.”
McQueary said the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Fire and Explosives were investigating the fire.
Some in the area questioned why the evacuation order was given, but for Heather Meza, who lives across Larkin Street from the plant, the order was the best idea.
“I didn’t even know that place had that stuff in there. When we walked out, we saw the fire shooting into the sky, and the heat was incredible,” she said speaking of the facility storing ammonium nitrate.
Ammonium nitrate was one of the chemicals that exploded in the West fertilizer explosion in 2013. The explosion killed 15 people and leveled an entire area.
Ms. Meza said Athens police made her leave the area, but she said the fire already was roaring when they left the home.
“We stayed in Gun Barrel City last night because there were no rooms in Athens,” she said.
For 13-year-old Jose Chavez, the entire event would not be forgotten.
“We spent the night in our Suburban in the WalMart parking lot. There were five of us in there,” he said.
Chavez admitted he was a little worried when he saw the flames shooting into the air.
Some questioned if the plan carried out by the fire department was adequate.
“We chose a course of action that we saw was fit at the time to not get people killed or hurt, and that means first responders and citizens. We understood West. We have studied West. Our planning and our training went into that direction, and it was evacuation,” McQueary said.
The Thursday fire postponed the annual Fiddler’s Reunion, but organizers said the show would go on today.
McQueary said no one was injured, and as of Friday no cause had been determined.
But he said that due to the fire shooting through the roof so quickly, it might have kept the facility from exploding, despite the facility holding nearly twice the amount of the ammonium nitrate that was in West at the time of the explosion in 2013.
Several locations that sold ammonium nitrate were investigated in Athens, including the facility on Larkin, but it was able to remain open. The El Dorado facility just outside of the city limits no longer deals in the fertilizer after the investigation. No details were available on the investigation or the findings.
“One of the most significant factors that you can help mitigate detonation with ammonium nitrate is ventilation,” McQueary said. “We will investigate this, and we will determine what we can learn, what went wrong and what went well, and what we can do that situation for other departments in the future.”