UPDATE: Evacuation down to one block area in wake of Athens fertilizer storage fire

LIVE: Authorities investigating Athens storage facility fire

UPDATE: ATHENS TX. (KYTX) - In a 2 p.m. press conference, Athens Mayor Jerry Don Vaught says one block area around the fertilizer plant is still closed off.

Fire Chief John McQueary said although his department learned much from last year's West explosion, the storage facility in Athens is a different situation. He said West had much more flammable material like gasoline and paint thinners.

McQueary added that the State Fire Marshal's Office has been to Athens since the West explosion to offer suggestions and help.

He says a firefighter's truck and trailer were stolen.

Twenty to 25 households are in the one-block area near the storage building still blocked off.

The shelter will remain open as long as needed. County offices are closed, but city hall is open.

The Old Fiddlers' reunion is canceled for tonight.

When asked about the evacuation plan, the mayor said there was no written plan, but the fire and police departments are well-trained and their highest concern was the safety of residents.

Earlier a five-block radius remains evacuated Friday following a major fire at a fertilizer plant in Athens, and the more than 300 residents who were displaced are wondering when they will be able to return to their homes.

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.

At a press conference at 8:30 this morning, The Athens Fire Chief, John McQueary detailed their response to the fertilizer storage facility fire near downtown Athens.  He says not long after firefighters responded to the scene, they determined to evacuate their crews and residents near the scene.

Firefighters knew this facility contained ammonium nitrate and responded accordingly. The Fire Chief says there was fire coming from all sides of the building and from the roof. Because of the magnitude of the fire, all available police, DPS and sheriff's deputies responded.  

Chief McQueary says they learned from the West explosion it was safest to watch the fire and let it burn itself out. He says there is some history with ammonium nitrate can extinguish itself.

The Chief says they were fortunate that when the roof collapsed, it did not detonate the 70 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in the building. 
Firefighters are staying on guard until they can saturate the area with water as a part of their action plan.

The air quality was monitored by two agencies and the Chief says there was little toxicity in the atmosphere, but since there is still smoke evacuations are remaining in place right now.

The Fire Chief is asking the public to send any video of the fire to the State Fire Marshal - (979) 277-4278. Investigators are still considering this fire a crime scene at East Texas Ag Service.

The Mayor Jerry Don Vaught says the residents health and safety is their main concern right now. The Fiddlers reunion is now on hold right now. They will reduce evacuations until safe, when the site is more stable.

Henderson County downtown Athens offices will be closed Friday. 
The Fire Chief says the facility where the fire happened recently had some improvements done because of what they learned in West. Right now, the plan is to tear down the walls of the fertilizer facility and flow water onto it and get rid of the smoke in the area. Dykes will be created to prevent run-off into the sewage facility.

Another press conference is scheduled for this afternoon.

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ATHENS (Tyler Morning Telegraph) - Smoke billowed over downtown, which had been evacuated Thursday night while firefighters allowed a fire in a fertilizer storage building to burn itself out. 

Mayor Jerry Don Vaught said in a news conference that at 5:45 p.m. Thursday first responders were notified of a fire in a fertilizer plant in the 100 block of Larkin Street. 

"Athens Fire (Department) responded initially and found the building fully engulfed. The fire department backed off and recommended evacuation of a five-block area," Vaught said.

Athens Police, Henderson County Sheriff's Office, the Texas Department of Public Safety and many other agencies from the area assisted in notifying residents about the evacuation, Vaught said.

Approximately 300 to 350 people were evacuated, the mayor estimated. If people did not have vehicles for transportation to the shelters, bus service was provided from Athens High School parking lot on College Street, a community church on West Tyler Street and the Goodwill store on North Palestine Street.

"There have been no injuries to report at this time thanks to the efforts of the first responders," Vaught said. "Downtown Athens has been evacuated and the fire department has taken a defensive posture to allow the fire to burn itself out." 

Shelters were set up at the Cain Center at 915 S. Palestine St. and First United Methodist Church at 225 Lovers Lane.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was in route to check air quality within the evacuated area around midnight, Vaught said, expressing hope to have information within a few hours.

"Our main priority is safety and security of our citizens and this is what I am very proud of our first responders having taken care of," he said.

Nobody knew late Thursday what caused the fire but the cause will be investigated, the mayor said.

There was no estimate late Thursday night of when the fire might burn itself out on its own. 

"We hope that will happen hopefully by morning; we just don't know," Vaught said.

Before people will be allowed back into the evacuated area, Vaught said, "We need to check the air quality and make sure that is safe for any resident in the area and then we will evaluate fire."

The building "has been around for over 50 years; it has always been a fertilizer storage building and until this, nothing has ever happened there," Vaught said. 

The fertilizer plant is operated by a company called Ag Services, which leases he building from the railroad. 

He could not say the amount of ammonium nitrate that was in the building.

"We have been in contact with the owner and he, of course, is just as concerned as the rest of us to make sure that the air quality and safety of citizens of Athens are taken care of," Vaught said. "We have an excellent fire department that was very well prepared and trained to do what they needed to do to make sure that air quality and safety and health were taken care of."

Vaught said he was "doing a lot of praying" as the situation evolved and "Lord up above took care of us today."


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