ATHENS (CBSDFW.COM) – Home evacuations in Athens finally ended 24 hours after a fire at a fertilizer storage facility.
Police are still guarding the downtown street block, where the Ag Services building erupted in flames Thursday afternoon.
The city evacuated an estimated 300 homes, as well as the county square, where the annual Athens Old Fiddlers Reunion was scheduled to begin Friday. The festival, now in its 77th year, draws thousands of visitors to the city.
Little Red Hayes, a professional fiddler from Jasper, has been attending since 1948, the year he met his wife at the festival.
“Just brings back a lot of memories,” he said. He nearly missed this year, after suffering a heart attack while playing fiddle at church Sunday. “Didn’t have any breath, any heartbeat, any pulse, nothing,” he said.
Hayes survived, checked out of the hospital Thursday, and drove to Athens, still hoping to play. The city, though, had postponed the festival over safety concerns.
Fire Chief John McQueary explained that just a few hours before the fire the storage facility received 70 tons of ammonium nitrate. Seventy tons is twice the amount of ammonium nitrate that exploded at the West Fertilizer Company.
Investigators are still trying to determine the cause and origin of the fire, and are treating the area as a potential crime scene, for now.
Ag Services owner, Ken McGee, told investigators he left the building shortly after 5 p.m. Thursday.
“Thirty minutes later we have a fire that’s shooting through the roof and has engulfed at least half or better of the structure. We consider any fire like that suspicious,” said McQueary.
Nahum Rincon was at his family’s business across the street, when he saw the smoke coming from the plant. The 14-year-old said he remembered being warned, and ran when he saw smoke coming from the building.
“I was scared,” he said. “I always hear people saying it’s kind of dangerous to have around the middle… well close to this part of the neighborhood.”
Despite the blaze, evacuations and investigation – the show must go on. The Athens Old Fiddlers Reunion is back on for Saturday.
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