By Erik Walsh
Monitor Staff Writer
ATHENS–Monday, investigators reported that the cause of the May 29 fertilizer storage facility fire in downtown Athens is “undetermined.” Criminal intent was ruled out, due to the absence of evidence identifying an ignition source. Until Monday, the facility had been treated as a crime scene. After the findings were issued, the East Texas Ag Supply property was released to its owner.
The findings were issued by the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office in conjunction with the Athens Fire Department, Henderson County Fire Marshal’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (Dallas Field Division).
“The fire originated in the northwest quadrant of the building, at ceiling level. Based on the origin of the fire, the only causes that could not be eliminated are related to an electrical failure,” Athens Fire Chief John McQueary stated in a press release.
State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy stated, “Per national guidelines and standards, the fire will be classified as undetermined because the ignition source and the first material ignited could not be determined.”
The finalization of the fire investigation report is expected in the weeks ahead.
“The city appreciates the hard work and investigation by the agencies involved in determining the final conclusion regarding this incident,” Athens Mayor Jerry Don Vaught said shortly after the findings were released Monday.
The time between the departure of the last person from the facility’s 105 Larkin St. location May 29 and it being engulfed in flames 30 minutes later, had raised suspicion of possible criminal intent. The findings also ruled out weather as a factor.
East Texas Ag Supply owner Ken McGee was the last to leave the facility at around 5:15 p.m., McQueary said during a press conference the following day. “By 5:45 p.m., the building was almost fully enveloped in flames,” McQueary said. “The timetable is highly unusual and may not have been accidental.” McGee had just received 70 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer earlier that day, he added.
The fire caused massive disruption to the downtown area sending up a column of smoke that could be seen from Mabank, leading to an evacuation zone that first included three city blocks and was later expanded to five. More than 300 residents were forced to leave their homes that evening. They were able to return Friday, after officials with the Environmental Protection Agency conducted air quality tests with negative results for toxicity. Fifty displaced residents who could not find shelter at hotels, motels, friends or family stayed at the Cain Center.
The blaze also disrupted the opening festivities to the 83rd annual Old Fiddlers Reunion. The jam session usually held the night before the competition was canceled. The competition slated for May 31, was held at the Athens Courthouse Square as planned, along with the second annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes march and fundraiser. Nearby businesses and Trinity Valley Community College closed as a precaution and vehicle traffic was rerouted along Loop 7. On Friday the U.S. Post Office was inaccessible.
According to McQuery, the storage facility contained more ammonium nitrate than the one that caused the massive blast in West last year that killed 15 people. The Athens fire resulted in no injuries.
“What you had here is somewhat larger than a storage shed in the back that houses your gasoline can, fertilizer, flower seed,” McQueary said. West had a large facility that housed not only ammonium nitrate, but also anhydrous ammonia and trucks that ran on gasoline- and diesel.“They had tractor trailers and a lot of products that can contaminate,” he said.