DALLAS - Firefighters evacuated the town square in Athens Thursday afternoon because of a large fire a block away that burned down a facility that stores ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

That is the same fertilizer that exploded at a storage facility in the town of West, Texas, in April 2013, killing 15 people.

Thursday's fire started about 5:30 p.m. according to resident Billie Morse. It's uncertain what sparked the fire, but images on social media showed large flames shooting into the air. The building at 105 W. Larkin St. is owned by East Texas Ag Supply.

Officials say they are treating the area as a crime scene.

  • Click here to see where all ammonium nitrate storage facilities are located in Texas

Emergency responders evacuated people within a three to five-block area. Nothing exploded at the facility, and there were no reports of injuries.

However, neither city or emergency officials provided any kind of briefing regarding the blaze and the facility Thursday night.

OnFriday during a press conference, police said two agencies spent the night and morning monitoring air quality. They said there was little to no toxicity in the air.

Fearing a powerful explosion similar to the one in West, which leveled dozens of homes and businesses last year, some businesses outside the immediate area of the Athens facility self-evacuated. Trinity Valley Community College closed its Athens campus about a mile south of the burning warehouse.

Residents were evacuated from their homes as soon as the fire broke. Some found refuge in open fields and others stayed put near gas stations. News 8 crews witnessed a lot of people buying gas and drinking water, just in case the evacuation was for the long haul.

News 8 was notified of two locations where people were to be evacuated. But in our conversations with the evacuees, they were unaware of the locations.

Firefighters were not spraying water on the flames. At 7:20 p.m. most of the flames were extinguished, but firefighters still had not closed in on the building.

Only the cinder block walls remain standing while white smoke rises.

Athens has a population of 12,000 people in Henderson County, which is about 70 miles southeast of Dallas.

The crumbling cinder block and wooden structure has been the focus of News 8 investigations several times in recent months. Our stories examined how a building that appears to be a fire risk could house such explosive material.

Local officials have repeatedly said that the building, which has housed ammonium nitrate fertilizer for decades, is safe and not a danger. Despite the condition of the building, deliveries of the product have continued. Several times a week, a chemical truck pulls up in front and unloads tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. A concerned News 8 viewer sent us photos earlier this month of an ammonium nitrate delivery at the facility.

After the West explosion, Athens resident Charles Spann became suspicious of what was going on in the building just off the town square.

'A facility like this, if it blew, it could take down the annex and hurt a lot of innocent people,' Spann told News 8 in June 2013.

This wasn't the first fire threat recently for the Athens warehouse. In November 2013, a restaurant across a narrow street from the building caught fire. Flames shot into the air as firefighters struggled to gain control. The restaurant was a total loss. The fertilizer warehouse escaped harm in that incident.

In the wake of the West explosion, the Texas Department of Insurance, which oversees the state fire marshal's office, issued a notice stressing best practices for storing ammonium nitrate. It recommends having proper sprinklers in storage facilities and no wooden storage bins.

The roof and interior of the Athens building is mostly wood, just like in West.

Late last year, State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy embarked on a series of meetings with officials across Texas warning them about housing ammonium nitrate in wooden structures.

According to its website, the fire marshal's office has twice visited Henderson County, which includes Athens, on April 3 and March 3. Despite the state's warnings, the facility has continued to get multi-ton deliveries of ammonium nitrate.

Thursday evening, the mayor of Athens told News 8 that there is currently ammonium nitrate in the facility. It's unknown how much.

When News 8 started asking questions about the downtown Athens fertilizer depot in May 2013, Athens Fire Chief John McQueary said he was aware of what was in the building and that the building was safe.

He later told the local newspaper '...that ammonium nitrate is not going to go off; we're going to be able to put that out.' On Thursday, firefighters appeared to have let the building burn and instead evacuated the immediate area -- a tactic recommended by fire experts.

After News 8 exposed the dangers at the Athens facility in June 2013, local officials organized a local emergency planning committee, as required by federal law to plan for chemical emergencies. Prior to our stories, the county had not had such a committee.

Ken McGee Jr., the local businessman who runs the Athens fertilizer facility, has refused to go on camera talking about potential dangers at the facility. He was recently honored as 'agriculturist of the year' by the townspeople in Athens, according to news accounts.

He did not return phone message Thursday night.

State health officials say there are 129 buildings across the state storing dangerous levels of ammonium nitrate.


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