The site of a large fertilizer company fire in Athens was being treated like a crime scene Friday as investigators tried to find clues about the cause.
The blaze at East Texas AG Supply was shooting through the roof Thursday evening within 30 minutes after the company owner left for the day, noticing no apparent problems, according to officials.
“We consider any fire like that suspicious,” Fire Chief John McQueary said. “We’ve got to treat it that way. If we don’t, then we destroy the crime scene and we have no recourse to go back and capture that stuff.”
After a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West in 2013, McQueary said Athens firefighters were well aware of the possible danger involved at the plant near their town square.
An area of about five blocks in every direction from the business at Larkin and Pinkerton Streets was evacuated Thursday and then firefighters let the fire burn itself out instead of trying to get too close.
“The action was taken so quickly, they were doing everything possible as quickly as they could,” said Athens Mayor Jerry Don Vaught.
A carnival was about to open nearby as the fire broke out and people were already walking the midway, according to carnival worker C.J. Jones.
“They evacuated everybody as soon as they could and the fire, it was big,” he said.
Jon Garrett operates two businesses on the Athens town square and he saw the flames.
“Once we realized this was the fertilizer warehouse, we all got out of there pretty quick,” Garrett said. “Everybody in the city questioned why is it still there after the West explosion last year, but it is. Hopefully they’ll do something after this.”
The fire was out by Friday afternoon and the evacuation area was reduced to just a block around the site.
“We’ll investigate this,” McQueary said. “Not only what went wrong, but what went well, to help other departments in the future.”
McQueary said about 70 tons of ammonium nitrate had been delivered to the Athens business just before the fire and there was twice as much of the explosive material at the Athens company as there was at the West business when it exploded.
Fortunately, there was no explosion in Athens.
Investigators are asking for any photos or video people in Athens may have depicting who was in the area at the time the fire started.
“Come in if you’ve got any kind of media we can use that would show cars, vehicles, people walking around that area,” McQueary said.
The carnival interrupted Thursday night was canceled again Friday for safety as the investigation continued nearby.