By Jack Fink

ATHENS (CBS 11 NEWS) – State and local fire investigators are still trying to figure out what sparked a massive fire here at the East Texas Ag Supply fertilizer plant in downtown Athens.

On Friday, firefighters allowed most residents and businesses to return downtown after they deemed air quality safe.

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Stored inside the facility, ammonium nitrate, the same chemical that exploded at a West fertilizer plant last year, killing 15 people.

Fire investigators in Athens say it’s too early to call this a crime.

But they’re concerned because 30 minutes the owner locked up for the night, flames fully engulfed the facility.

Fire Chief John McQueary says, “We consider this suspicious, so we put it under investigation mode. Maybe something is suspicious, or may not have anything, but we get to treat it that way. If we don’t and we destroy the crime scene, and we have no recourse to recapture the stuff.”

The chief is asking the public if they have any video of the fire itself and around the plant before the blaze.

Hours earlier, authorities say the plant received 70 tons of ammonium nitrate.

That’s twice as much as the ammonium nitrate that exploded in West.

But here in Athens, the chemical didn’t detonate.

Chief McQueary says one reason maybe, the fire shot through the roof. “You have to have ample amount of ventilation. I think that helped significantly.”

He says that ventilation may have prevented the ammonium nitrate from heating up and exploding.

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The plant’s owner, Ken McGee Jr. says his family has owned the plant for 30 years.

He says he didn’t know much about the investigation, and didn’t have time to talk because of his meetings with officials from various state agencies.

During the fire, the city evacuated residents and businesses in a three block radius.

The mayor, Jerry Don Vaught, acknowledged there was no written evacuation plan to follow, but the chief says their actions worked. “Because of the magnitude of the fire and conditions at the time, we felt like we had to get out as many people of harm’s way. Every block you evacuate takes more time, more manpower.”

The massive fire in downtown Athens stopped people in their tracks.

But when people like Chuck Merickel, who took pictures of the fire, discovered it was the fertilizer plant going up in flames, that changed everything. “I only took nine shots and realized this isn’t where I want to be.”

(©2014 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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