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Nashville officials resolved to find bombing suspects, learn motive behind explosion

Yihyun Jeong Brinley Hineman
Nashville Tennessean
  • AT&T service disruption cripples 911, grounds flights after explosion
  • Residents report RV sounded alarm before bomb went off offering 'fair warning' to those in area
  • Congressman believes infrastructure was the target "that's possibly more dangerous"

Nashville is turning from relief to resolve, Mayor John Cooper said Friday evening after an early morning explosion downtown upended Christmas Day and caused destruction for several blocks. 

No known suspects nor motive have been announced behind a bomb that detonated inside a parked RV on Nashville's historic Second Avenue near Lower Broadway. 

Police have found what they believe are human remains but had not confirmed any fatalities. 

Cooper, at the last update for the evening, said the relief that not more people were injured has now turned to anger and determination to bring those responsible to justice. 

"This was a terrible day, but Nashville has faced other challenges, particularly this year. We can rebuild and get back to normal," he said. "This morning’s attack on our community was intended to create chaos and fear in this season of peace and hope, but the spirit of our city cannot be broken."

Authorities say the explosion was deliberate and intentional. 

Police came across a suspicious RV parked outside a nearby AT&T building near Second Avenue and Commerce Street before 6 a.m. when responding to calls of shots fired in the area, according to Metro police spokesperson Don Aaron. 

There was no evidence of any shooting, but officers and witnesses heard a broadcast coming from the RV giving a dire warning: “Evacuate now. There is a bomb. A bomb is in this vehicle and will explode." 

Then, the voice started a 15-minute countdown.

Metro Police Chief John Drake said the six officers at the scene quickly began to evacuate the area, going door-to-door. They redirected a man walking his dog along the street. 

The RV exploded at 6:30 a.m. as the bomb squad was en route. The force of the explosion knocked an officer to the ground and gave another officer what police hope is temporary hearing loss. Three people were hospitalized with injuries.

Police said it is unclear if anyone was inside the RV when it exploded. The "tissue" found near the site had to be examined to confirm if human. There were no reports of fatalities as of Friday afternoon. 

"We will find out who did this," FBI Special Agent in Charge Matt Foster said at a Friday afternoon news conference. "This is our city, too. We're putting everything we have into finding who was responsible for what happened here today."

Cooper issued a state of civil emergency at the explosion site and the surrounding area, and a curfew that started 4:30 p.m. Friday and went until 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

The areas affected are bounded by James Robertson Parkway, Fourth Avenue North, Broadway and the Cumberland River.

Relief turning to resolve

Cooper said Nashville will not be deterred in finding the people who orchestrated the explosion. 

"It will be some time until Second Avenue is back to normal," he said, reporting at least 41 businesses in the area had been damaged in connection to the explosion. 

Drake celebrated the work his officers did to evacuate nearby buildings when the situation was fluid and uncertain early this morning. 

"Those officers saved lives today," he said. "They immediately began knocking on doors, not knowing if the bomb was going to go off immediately. They didn't care about themselves, they didn't think about that, they cared about the citizens of Nashville." 

Drake said the department had received no threats prior to Friday's explosion, calling it a "total surprise" with no known motive as of Friday evening. He said it is too soon to know whether any specific buildings had been targeted. 

As Nashville Fire continues to evaluate the buildings around the blast site for structural safety, Chief William Swann said that "many" residents had been displaced. 

In a trying year for Nashville, which has seen a tornado and grappled with a deadly global pandemic, Friday's explosion is now the latest threat the city has faced. 

Cooper called 2020 “the year of the first responder.” 

“Nurses and doctors have been in the lead, and now our police force, and certainly our firemen, are catching up,” he told The Tennessean.

He said this year has brought trials and tests to the city but the glimmer of hope is that “we can do it.”

The mayor called 2020 Nashville’s hardest year ever, but he's confident the city can band together in times of catastrophe and heartache.

“I want to take to 2021 the knowledge we can work together as a city," he said. "This is just a hard year of practice for us learning how to do that. Let's get on to tackling problems and create the greatest city in the country."

Explosion contributes to 911, wireless service disruption

AT&T service in Nashville and Middle Tennessee was affected for many customers Friday, said company spokesperson Jim Greer, citing damage to facilities from the explosion. The outage affected 911 access in several jurisdictions across the region throughout the day. 

"We are in contact with law enforcement and working as quickly and safely as possible to restore service," Greer said. 

Flights out of BNA Airport in Nashville were halted Friday afternoon due to telecommunications issues associated with the incident. The airport reported just before 6 p.m. that most flights are resuming but there may be some delays.

The Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp announced Friday afternoon a $10,000 contribution toward a reward that stands currently at $31,000 in the case. 

"Like everyone, we woke up this Christmas morning to the horrible news of the explosion on Second Avenue. Our hearts, thoughts and prayers are with all involved or affected," Butch Spyridon, NCVC president and CEO, said in a statement. "This is when we show the world who we are. Thank you all for everything you do for our city, and stay safe. I believe in Nashville."

EXCLUSIVE:Nashville witness remembers chilling warning from the RV: 'A bomb is in this vehicle'

'Fair warning'

Betsy Williams, the owner of the Melting Pot building across the street, told The Tennessean that guests reported the RV was stationed there since Thursday night.

Williams, who lives in a loft apartment on the third floor, said she heard the sound of loud, rapid-fire gunshots at about 4:30 a.m.

After multiple rounds of gunshot sounds, Williams said she called 911.

Then, she said, she heard a repeated warning she said came from the RV parked outside her building.

She recalled hearing the announcement warning of a bomb and to evacuate. Then, it started counting down to the explosion, she said.  

Williams said she, her spouse and family left the lofts in their pajamas. She took her cat Mavis but left her valuables behind.

They headed to Nissan Stadium and waited. When they didn’t hear an explosion, they headed back. They were at Second Avenue and Broadway when they saw a fireball fly over the AT&T building on Second Avenue.

“Whoever did it did give fair warning,” Williams said.

She saw the windows in her loft were blown out. Her Christmas tree was still on inside.

Aaron confirmed investigators believe the recording heard by witnesses originated from the vehicle. 

Michael Smalley, executive vice president of Cruise America, the nation’s largest RV rental firm, told The Tennessean that due to the age of the RV, it’s unlikely it was rented out by a company. 

The age of the vehicle could be a giveaway for law enforcement tracing its owner, he said, since not many like that are rolling around, making it “conspicuous.” 

“I’m kind of shocked and stunned that a vehicle like this was used in a crime of this nature,” he said. 

He believes based on photos shared publicly by MNPD the RV is at least 10 years old. The age makes it more easily traceable, he said.

Safety sweeps continue into afternoon

Several people were taken to the department's central precinct for questioning but authorities declined to give more details Friday morning. 

The downtown area was sealed off with an active investigation underway led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with the help of Nashville, state and federal agencies. 

Though authorities said there are no indications of additional devices, police were going door-to-door with dogs in the downtown area to search nearby buildings. 

Two families vacationing in Middle Tennessee for Christmas came to Second Avenue N. Friday afternoon to offer prayers and well wishes to the Nashville community. 

“It strikes the heart of America,” said David Leatherwood of St. Petersburg, Florida. “We’re here to stand in solidarity with the people of Nashville to say we love Nashville and we love Tennessee.”

NASHVILLE EXPLOSION:Residents capture confusion, chaos in moments after downtown explosion

NASHVILLE EXPLOSION:Downtown streets closed to traffic as investigation continues

Lawmakers react to explosion

President Donald Trump has been briefed and will continue to get regular updates, according to White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere. 

“The President is grateful for the incredible first responders and praying for those who were injured," Deere said in a statement. 

The sound of the explosion Friday morning could be heard miles away, as people reported windows shaking from South and East Nashville. 

Plumes of black smoke filled the air with several fires seen along what is typically a busy street that intersects with Nashville's famed tourist attraction, Lower Broadway. Alarms inside several buildings were heard with water pouring into some buildings with structural damage and broken windows.

Trees lining Second Avenue were blackened from the incident. 

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper speculated as to the motives of the device's creator on Friday afternoon. 

“We don't know yet what motivated this terrible crime,” Cooper said in an interview with The Tennessean Friday afternoon. "This is maybe the worst Christmas in history.

"It looks to me like terrorism against infrastructure was involved. The recording (before the blast) seems to have reduced loss of life. And that's not typical of terrorism, generally terrorism is to sow fear among people. But this infrastructure attack, that's more abstract. And that's possibly more dangerous."

Cooper cited the widespread 911 accesses issues caused by the AT&T outages as evidence that the region's digital backbone took a serious hit.

He called the blast, if it was an attack, a "deeper, more insidious crime."

Nashville Fire Department Chief William Swann said urban search and rescue and hazmat teams were checking for victims and structural damage in the area surrounding the blast.

"We will keep working until the job is done," he said. 

Gov. Bill Lee in a statement said the state will provide needed resources to determine what happened and who was responsible. 

U.S. Attorney Don Cochran said in a Friday afternoon news conference that he had been in contact with Acting U.S. Attorney General Jeffery Rosen, who said he was devoting the entire resources of the Department of Justice to help. 

Anyone with information on the explosion is encouraged to go to www.fbi.gov/Nashville to submit information. 

'Like a bomb went off'

Mayor John Cooper said he toured the damage, describing broken glass and water mains with insulation "blown up" into the trees.

"It looks like a bomb went off," he said.

"One more event in Nashville's 2020," he said. 

Andrew Carr, who is staying at the Viridian apartments on Fourth Avenue and Church Street, told The Tennessean he jumped out of bed when he heard what sounded like a "giant thunderclap." 

He looked out the window and said he saw a "huge fireball" rising up behind an AT&T building on Second Avenue and Commerce Street — describing it almost as "wide as the building itself." 

Carr said for the next hour he and his family watched the black smoke plumes rise into the sky and could later see debris on top of the AT&T building. 

Residents in the apartment building, he said, have been put in lockdown. 

The owner of the nearby Nashville Downtown Hostel told The Tennessean guests were evacuated to Nissan Stadium for shelter. He said he got a call early Friday from his staff reporting hearing a "loud boom" and the fire alarm going off. 

He said the hostel is damaged but did not go into details. 

This is a developing story.