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Athens Plant Fire Treated As Crime Scene

(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Stephanie Lucero
Stephanie is an Emmy Award winning veteran reporter for CBS 11 N...
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ATHENS (CBSDFW.COM) - A five-block radius has been evacuated following a major fire at a fertilizer plant in Athens. The blaze first began at around 5:45 p.m. on Thursday evening. Nobody has been allowed to go near the fertilizer storage facility, while hundreds of residents who live nearby stayed Thursday night in shelters and hotels.

Thankfully, no lives have been lost or injuries reported in the east Texas fire. Athens is located about 70 miles southeast of Dallas.

More than 300 residents were evacuated from their homes on Thursday, and they are now wondering when they will be able to go back. Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency have conducted air quality tests and found nothing toxic in the atmosphere. However, the air is still a danger because of smoke.

The fire sent plumes of smoke high into the sky. Flames reportedly reached about 60 feet into the air.

When emergency crews arrived at the fertilizer storage facility on Thursday, the building was fully engulfed in flames. First responders made the decision to back off and take a defensive posture, allowing the fire to burn out on its own. Officials said on Friday morning that the building will now be torn down and doused with heavy amounts of water. This process is expected to last throughout most of Friday, during which the area is set to remain evacuated.

The building in Athens belongs to East Texas AG Service. Their facility just received a 70-ton shipment of ammonium nitrate, the same material that ignited and exploded at the West Fertilizer Company in April of last year. Emergency officials in Athens were immediately concerned about the possibility of another massive explosion. “We were scared. We didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Mayor Jerry Don Vaught.

But there was no explosion at the Athens plant. The ammonium nitrate did not ignite.

“I was doing a lot of praying, and the Lord up above took care of us today,” Vaught added.

The Texas State Chemist’s office inspected East Texas AG Service last year and found no violations. The company is believed to be up to date on its chemical registrations. The owner left the facility about 35 minutes before fire crews found the building engulfed in flames. Now, the burned building is being treated as a crime scene. Fire Chief John McQueary asked the public to submit any photos or video of the blaze.

“We had some deficiencies and, as soon as we learned about West, we found more on this particular facility,” stated McQueary on Friday. “We inspected that facility with a greater eye and a greater focus and we corrected those deficiencies.”

When asked Friday if the fertilizer plant should not be located in the center of town, Vaught said, “We’ll have to determine. I felt like it has been safe for many years. It has been over 50 years that it was there and it has always been a safe situation, until what happened in West.”

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