ATHENS (CBS 11 NEWS) – The majority of the families, who were evacuated when a fertilizer storage facility caught fire near the center of town, have been allowed to return to their homes.
However, a one-block radius remains off-limits while officials continue searching for the cause of the fire. The area is being treated as a crime scene.
The situation puts 20-25 families in a holding pattern, according to officials.
“Now, we’re just waiting,” Christopher Hernandez said. “The officer was very insistent that we get out really, really, really quick. We didn’t have time to grab anything.”
The Hernandez family lives close enough to the East Texas Ag Supply facility that they were able to as a few puffs of smoke turned into an inferno on Thursday afternoon.
“Those flames out of that building were at least 15 feet high and it didn’t take 10 minutes for the whole building to be engulfed in flames,” Hernandez said.
Even then, the family didn’t realize the potential danger.
“Only after the fire, did we find out what it was,” Hernandez said. “We thought it was a feed store. [We] did not know, had no clue.”
The facility had recently accepted delivery of 70 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, roughly twice the amount of the chemical that exploded in West, according to the Athen’s Fire Chief John McQueary.
For some families, the magnitude of the situation is beginning to sink in.
“We were right here,” said Rachel Castaneda, who hurriedly evacuated with her husband and two young children. “We would be engulfed in flames in a couple of minutes.”
The fire chief is fielding questions about why only a three block area was initially evacuated.
“We felt like we had to immediately get as many people out of harm’s way as we can,” McQueary said.
“Every block that you evacuate takes more time, more manpower.”
A shelter at the city’s recreation center will remain open for as long as it’s needed. There is one neighbor, however, that home owners hope is gone for good.
“I’m hoping they move it a little further out,” Castaneda said. “At least, not have it here around a neighborhood. Keep it out of town.”
The fertilizer fire has also disrupted the ‘Old Fiddler’s Reunion,’ an 83-year-old tradition in Athens. Friday’s events have been canceled and city officials said they are unclear if other weekend events will be canceled.
Updated information will be posted to the city’s webpage.
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