Posted by : Erik Walsh | On : June 5, 2014

Athens Fire-Shawna Smith-5-29

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.



Posted by : Erik Walsh | On : May 23, 2014

Farm and Ranch 010 EDIT

By Erik Walsh
The News Staff

ATHENS–The Athens Chamber of Commerce hosted its 51st Annual Henderson County Farm & Ranch Tour May 20, culminating with Ken McGee, Jr. receiving the 25th Joe B. Fulgham Agriculturist of the Year award.
After beginning the day at 8 a.m. at the Cain Center with complimentary coffee and donuts, a crowd of more than 200 piled into busses provided by Athens Independent School District and departed for the three agricultural tour sites.

The first stop was the TVCC Ranch, a 254-acre facility in Malakoff. The ranch is managed by TVCC instructors Marc Robinson and Brent Bratton, along with three students who live on the grounds. According to a press release from TVCC, Henderson County Agrilife Extension Agent Rich Hirsch told the crowd on hand that the TVCC Ranch is an important stop on the Farm & Ranch Tour, which aims to highlight the facilities that help fuel a $130 million agriculture industry in the county.

“TVCC offers a lot of good courses in agriculture and ranch management,” Hirsch said. “(This ranch) is not only a great resource for the college, but for Henderson County.”

After loading back onto the buses, the Farm & Ranch Tour made its second stop at the Rafter C Ranch, a 900 acre ranch of rolling hills and Bermuda grass. It is owned by Pete Carr and managed by Clay McCallie. The ranch is home to 270 horses, 50 bulls and 60 roping steers. The National Finals Rodeo picked 17 horses and 10 bulls from the Rafter C Ranch, more than any other stock producer in the country. It is also the home to Wise Guy, past Bucking Horse of the Year. Cowboys scored 90 or above on Wise Guy, more than any other horse in history.
The last stop on the Farm & Ranch Tour was the Sanctuary Ranch, L.P, located five miles west of Cross Roads. Sanctuary Ranch operates on just shy of 3,000 acres and is divided into three segments: cattle, whitetail deer breeding (the offspring are released into the wild to enhance the genetic quality of native deer) and a private segment for the owner, family and friends to enjoy.

Buses arrived back at the Cain Center at 11:45 in time for a noon barbecue lunch.
Former Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald was the keynote speaker, citing the importance of being an “ag believer.” He is currently working with the directors of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Services and the Texas A&M Forest Service.

A true “ag believer,” McDonald said, can become an “ag leader,” and share the message of agriculture with the public, government officials and fellow agricultural producers. “Ag leaders understand the concept of reaping and sowing,” he said. “Things don’t just happen on their own.”

Finally, the event concluded with Ken McGee, Jr. receiving the Joe B. Fulgham Agriculturist of the Year award. McGee’s father, Kenneth, won the same award in 1993.

McGee is a graduate of Athens High School and Texas A&M University. After college, McKee returned to Athens to join his father in the agriculture business of raising cattle and maintaining a herd of cross-bread steers that are mainly sold to participants in the Henderson County Livestock Show. He is the owner-operator of AgServices in Athens.



Posted by : Erik Walsh | On : December 16, 2013

San Luis customersWEB

By Tracy Martin
The News
ATHENS-Just before noon on Monday, the lunch crowd started pouring into El San Luis. The chips and familiar salsa were served, and owner Antonio Bolanos walked from table to table thanking his regulars for coming back.
On Nov 21, a fire swept through the restaurant’s Pinkerton St. location destroying everything in the building.
The fire started in the kitchen but quickly spread throughout the structure, leaving nothing to be salvaged.
Undaunted, Bolanos located a building, which had previously housed a restaurant and got to work. In two weeks, he was able to re-open, saying he just knew people would come to the new location. “See they’re here and I’m so thankful,” Bolanos told The News.
The new location on Murchison Street is situated right across the street from the county jail. Though the new location already had some of the restaurant supplies in place, Boanos notes it was still a challenge to open for business so quickly. “Oh yes, it was morning til night, and we all worked very hard,” he said.
Customer Norma Liliana Meeks was a regular at the old location and was happy to hear the restaurant was already re-opened. “We just love the food, it’s authentic, the menu is the same and it’s great that Antonio could come back so fast from the fire,” she said.



Posted by : Erik Walsh | On : December 9, 2013

Library Polar Express2

By Tracy Martin
The News Correspondent
ATHENS-From a field of six applicants, Rachel Cox was selected as the new head librarian at the Clint W. Murchison Library in Athens. Henderson County Library Advisory Board members chose Cox and county commissioners approved their choice during their regular Dec.3 meeting.
Cox graduated with honors from Eustace High School in 2002, University of Texas-Tyler and received her masters in library information science from the University of North Texas.
Board chairman Terry Warren says it was her breadth of experience at other libraries and sterling recommendations that put Cox at the top of the list. “Rachel worked in California and New Jersey, both libraries told us about the great work she did implementing new programs as an assistant librarian.” Warren said. “Both [libraries] said they’d love to hire her back.”
After the resignation of Lorie Travi six weeks ago, the board started the search for a replacement, assistant librarian Erin Holyfield has been in charge during the interim.
Cox says she’s very excited and plans to bring some of the programs she started at other libraries to Athens, “I want to make the library a cultural center for the county and bring as many people through the doors as possible.”
Some of her plans include providing computer classes to teach basic skills, help with resume’ writing, a teen outreach program to bring more young people into the library and extending the operating hours.
Cox and the board are optimistic that getting the word out that the library is moving in a new user-friendly direction will increase traffic.
Work has been in progress to improve and update the look of the library, including outdoor tables, expanding the children’s section and the addition of eBooks.
The doors in the rear of the building are slated for replacement with handicapped accessible doors and more fundraisers are in the works.
Holyfield is organizing the Saturday free movie showing of “The Polar Express” in the children’s section and plans to stay on as assistant librarian.
Cox only recently moved back to Henderson County from New Jersey and plans to start her new role in the next few weeks.



Posted by : Erik Walsh | On : November 15, 2013

Veterans Memorial 11 11 046 WEB

An estimated 1,000 people attend the dedication of the Henderson County Veterans Memorial Nov. 11 at the East Texas Arboretum in Athens.



Posted by : Erik Walsh | On : November 15, 2013


By Tracy Martin
The News Correspondent

ATHENS–Old computers, broken televisions, mattresses, yard waste and junk were some of the items Athens residents got to freely dispose of Nov. 9.

Keep Athens Beautiful sponsors the event twice a year to assist residents with disposing their e-Waste and to promote recycling. Most of the broken equipment and electronics will be hauled off and recycled.

KAB director Carol Morton says it’s great to see the community participate.

“It’s an exciting day for us to see Athens come out and get rid of so much stuff. It keeps the city beautiful and keeps it (electronics) out of our local landfills,” she said.

The local fall clean-up day is part of the Texas Recycling Day and Keep America Beautiful initiative. Both events fall in mid-November and have been going on for more than 10 years.

The collections were accepted from 8 a.m. to noon, and hot dogs, snacks and drinks were free to all those making a drop. A second clean-up day will be held in the spring.



Posted by : Erik Walsh | On : August 29, 2013


By Erik Walsh
The News Staff

ATHENS–Athens Hornets Head Coach Paul Essary is working hard to establish a culture of winning.
Now in his fifth year at the helm, Essary brought the Hornets to the playoffs three out of his four seasons.

When he was brought on board as the Athletic Director and Head Coach in 2009, the team made the playoffs two consecutive seasons. It was the first time in 51 years that a Hornet team made the playoffs back-to-back.

“I tell the boys that they are part of starting a tradition of winning at Athens High School,” Essary said. “One or two good years doesn’t start a tradition. It takes longer.”

If this year’s Hornets can make the playoffs, as they except to, a whole new class would achieve success after Essary’s arrival. It’s an important step in his vision.

“The most important part of winning is to get the kids to buy in and believe in themselves,” Essary said. “When it’s really become all about winning, losing is no longer an option. When this gets into a kids head, real results start to show. Winning is bigger than the individual. When the kids realize its important for the team, the family and the community, they finally start to believe in what they can do.”

Coaching well takes a high level of tenacity. Essary explains the difference between successful coaching and mediocre coaching.
“It’s hard to be a good coach. It’s easy to let the students slide on little things and not give their full effort. But how does that profit them? How does that profit the team? How would that reflect on me? It’s easy to not constantly demand they give their best effort and constantly reinforce it. The same with a coaching staff. It’s easy not to demand their best. But when you do, it forms a culture of winning.”

According to Essary, a culture of winning will field well-prepared teams that come ready to play at their highest level each week. They may not always win the game, but it won’t ever be because they didn’t give 110 percent.
“I tell kids when they give all they have they are getting close to what it takes to win. Once they give everything, they need to give just a little bit more to get there.”

That little bit more can be the difference between a win and a loss. Essary says that when the whole team gives all they have, plus more you will no longer beat yourself. This forces a good team to play its best to win.

“We do not accept losing here,” Essary said. “Losing means we caused the loss. Getting beat, however is a different story. If we are well prepared, played our best, but the other team is just better, we can accept this kind of loss.”
“We want to be a team that does not lose, that forces other teams to beat us.”

Essary knows that some days students, and even coaches, don’t want to work hard. But it’s those days when it is more important to push through to success.

“I tell them there will be days when they have a family and they may not feel like getting up to go to work. Who’s going to feed their family then? They will need to get up and do it anyway. I teach the boys that lesson here and now.”



Posted by : Erik Walsh | On : August 29, 2013

By Tracy Martin
The News Correspondent

ATHENS-Henderson County fire marshal Shane Renberg asked commissioners Aug. 27 to consider taking the burn ban a step further, banning both fire works and outdoor welding. “People are following the burn ban, we’ve had fewer grass fires and issued fewer citations, but fires are starting from people setting off fireworks, and one grass fire started from just a few welding sparks,” he reported. “We’re getting complaints all over the county about fireworks, but can’t do anything more than ask them to stop.”
Halting the use of fireworks can happen if an emergency declaration is issued. The current burn ban continues through Tuesday, Sept. 3, but commissioners do not meet until the following week, which could allow the ban to expire.
County Judge Richard Sanders plans to stay in contact with updates from Renberg and has the authority to either extend the ban or declare an emergency to further limit what can and cannot be burned.

Fireworks are not included in the parameters of the current burn ban and can only be banned under an emergency declaration.
According to the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, a model measuring moisture in the ground and plants and used to predict the likelihood of wildfire, Henderson County’s western portion rates a 724 out of 800, signifying a complete absence of moisture. The eastern portion scales at 624.

On Sept. 4, 2011, over the Labor day weekend under similar conditions, a fire started in Bastrop County which burned 35,000 acres, destroying 1,645 homes and killing two people. With drought conditions close to the extreme, officials are urging caution.
In other business, commissioners:

• acknowledged the appointment of Carolyn Tyler as the new 4-H County Extension Agent. Tyler holds a B.S. from Texas A&M and will develop and implement education programs.
• agreed to contract revisions and renewals with United Healthcare for group healthcare and choice silver benefit plan.
• approved the hiring of a part-time medical technician, to fulfill insurance requirements preparing medications for inmates, now required because the inmate population exceeds 350. Current inmate population is 373, of which 104 are from Smith County, housed while a new jail construction project is underway.
• revised the county personnel policy manual.
• renewed a contract with U.N.T. to allow historic data to be collected, scanned and made available to the public. Some records date back to the 1800s.
• accepted the price of $5,000 for a lot in Willowwood in Gun Barrel City, Precinct 2, as a resale deed.
• set a public hearing for 9:30 a.m. Sept. 17, to consider a speed limit of 35mph on a section of CR 4530 in Precinct 3, as requested by local residents.



Posted by : Erik Walsh | On : August 1, 2013

Arson fire Crescent Heights 010-2

By Tracy Martin
The News Corespondent

CRESCENT HEIGHTS-Around 2 in the afternoon July 24, a 12-year-old girl allegedly started a fire that destroyed her family’s home. Sources and witnesses spoke with The News about the fire, but will not be named to guard the identity of the juvenile. It took mere minutes for the fire to spread from room to room. The child’s mother attempted to put the fire out, while trying to get two other children out of the mobile home.

She was one of five treated for smoke-inhalation, including three firefighters who required medical attention due to the extreme heat and smoke. Two other residents of the small mobile home park needed hospitalization, one wheelchair bound, another with emphysema and high blood pressure.

The home was fully engulfed when firefighters arrived from Malakoff, North 19, Trinidad and Southside, two mobile homes on either side were saved because of the efforts by these fire departments. Had the fire not been contained, witnesses say three or four other residences could have been destroyed. They told firefighters how thankful they are for the saving of their homes. Bob Norris with North 19 fire and rescue says it was an incredibly hot fire. “The biggest concern was the proximity of the other homes and getting people away from the fire and heat. The smoke was very dangerous for everyone near the fire,” he said.
Henderson County Fire Marshal Shane Renberg was immediately called to the scene when arson was suspected. “It is always a delicate investigation when dealing with a juvenile and a serious crime like arson, especially when victims and firefighters battling the fire suffered injuries,” Renberg said.

One source told The News the mother had been dealing with behavior issues with the child, including treatment and medications, the 12-year-old attended school and is described as being a sweet, pretty girl. Renberg transported the child from the scene to a juvenile detention facility in Anderson County, where she is being held, undergoing evaluation and facing felony charges of arson to a habitation with injuries.

The family is described as hard-working and had purchased the mobile home after renting it and had been doing renovations and making improvements. The home is a total loss, and the family did not have insurance. The Red Cross provided emergency aid and temporary accommodations. Sources say the mother, father and three children had recently gone on a family vacation and are devastated by the fire and charges their little girl now faces.



Posted by : Erik Walsh | On : July 13, 2013

Help Center

By Erik Walsh
The News Staff

ATHENS–The Henderson County Help Center has been helping residents in their time of need for more than a quarter century.
The Help Center originally got its start in 1987 as a place where local churches could organize and track where resources were going. Executive Director Leslie Saunders explained.

“There was some overlap on where some of the churches were dispensing funds,” she said. “The Help Center assisted in preventing the same people from going from church to church – making their rounds and starting over again at the first church.”
More than simply preventing potential abuse, the purpose of the Help Center was to find out why people needed help and assist them is becoming self-reliant.

In the early ‘90s, the Help Center finally found its home. First Baptist Church offered a very generous lease on a building at 309 Royal St. in Athenswhere it is to this day. The 99-year lease costs The Help Center a dollar.

“First Baptist has been a continued blessing to the county,” Saunders said. “They are still one of our biggest partners today.”

Another Help Center partner which has been there since the beginning is The United Way. In fact, in its origin the program was called “The United Way Help Center.” Today it shows its support through the United Way Help Line,a clearing house of available resources to individuals and families by locating a way to meet their needs. There is a screening process that includes documentation. Residents may recieve financial aid in dire circumstances but ussualy only up to three times, with six month intervils.

In some rare circumstances these rules can be breached, but the need and situation must be merited and urgent, Saunders said.
The Help Center offers many services including various forms of counseling including assistance to physically or sexually abused children, pregnant mothers, school children and new parents.
Other programs include:

• PEP (Pregnancy, Education and Parenting), a school drop out prevention program for pregnant or parenting teens. The program can provide transportation, life skills and day care.

• SAP (Student Assistance Program) provides therapy services to at risk youth at school campuses.

• CAC (Child Advocacy Program) works with law enforcement, child protective services, the District Attorney’s Office and medical and mental health professionals to assist children from suffering abuse.

• Heritage Keepers is an abstinence and life skills education class developed to equip and empower adolescents to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage.

For more information about The Henderson County Help Center call 903-675-4357 or visit their website at www.the helpcenter.org.