Christmas Day Blast: Nashville explosion intentional
By Jamie McGee, Rick Rojas, Lucy Tompkins and Derrick Bryson Taylor | The New York Times
NASHVILLE, TENN. » First came the warning, then came the blast, shattering the Christmas morning silence in the heart of the city’s tourist district. Before dawn Friday, Nashville police officers rushed to calls of gunfire on Second Avenue, a strip of honky-tonks, restaurants and boot shops. Instead of gunfire, they found a recreational vehicle, blaring a strange and unsettling message: There was a bomb. It would detonate in 15 minutes.
When the RV did explode, it sent plumes of smoke billowing above the city, blew out windows in shops and offices for several blocks, left three people hospitalized and Nashville shaken.
Police said the explosion was intentional. It was also deeply unsettling, coming in an area that draws thousands of people nightly. But who set it off and why remained unknown as officials began to make sense of the blast.
Emergency personnel work near the scene of an explosion in Nashville, Tenn., on Friday. Buildings shook in the immediate area and beyond. MARK HUMPHREY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
“The whole neighborhood shook,” said Lily Hansen, who was sitting on her couch in her second-floor apartment in a loft building a few blocks away. She looked outside. “I just can’t get the image out of my head.”
Police released a photo of the RV on Friday afternoon and said the vehicle had arrived on Second Avenue North at 1:22 a.m. The RV was parked outside an AT& T transmission building, a separate building from the landmark 33-story AT& T office tower less than half a mile away.
It is still unclear if a person was inside the RV when it exploded, officials said. In a news conference Friday evening, police officials said there were no indications of fatalities, but possible human tissue had been found amid the debris.
Gas lines were shut off in the area and AT& T is experiencing outages, which forced the Federal Aviation Administration to temporarily halt flights out of the Nashville International Airport. Mayor John Cooper said he saw extensive damage when he surveyed the area, including shattered windows and glass that had showered onto sidewalks, charred trees and water main breaks.
Still, he acknowledged a measure of relief: Had the explosion taken place on a workday, he said, the outcome could have been far more perilous.
Authorities had cordoned off a large swath of the area Friday and urged people to stay away. “Don’t come to downtown Nashville,” Cooper said. “It’s going to be sealed off.”
The FBI field office in Memphis was taking the lead in the investigation, working with state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“Acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen was briefed on the incident early this morning and directed that all DOJ resources be made available to assist in the investigation,” a Justice Department spokesperson said in a statement. Rosen became the acting attorney general Wednesday after William Barr stepped down.
Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee said in a statement on Twitter the state would supply any needed resources to determine what had happened and who was responsible.
He said he was “praying for those who were injured” and was thankful to the emergency workers.
“President Trump has been briefed on the explosion in Nashville, Tennessee, and will continue to receive regular updates,” said Judd Deere, a spokesperson for the president. “The president is grateful for the incredible first responders and praying for those who were injured.”
Authorities said the explosion happened around 6:30 a.m. outside 166 Second Ave. North, in a stretch of downtown with a Hard Rock Cafe, Hooters, Redneck Riviera Barbecue and Honky Tonk Bus Tours. It is an area where the tourists who come to Nashville often flock.
But on Christmas morning, it was quiet. “It’s not a very populated area,” Cooper said.
After police officers arrived, they hurried to roust anyone they could find: The guests staying in nearby hotels. Residents just waking up in apartment buildings. People who had curled into the warmest crevices they could find as they slept on the street.
A bomb squad was on its way. But it was too late. The RV exploded, exactly as the recording blaring from the vehicle had warned.
Don Aaron, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, said the officers’ quick work in evacuating the area helped prevent the explosion from causing more damage.
“We think lives were saved by those officers doing just that,” he said.
On Second Avenue, just a block away from the Cumberland River, the blast left the roadway blackened with debris, including scorched trees and the hulls of vehicles destroyed by the explosion.
Fire trucks and emergency vehicles were gathered at the edge of downtown, and blue lights flashed under the Hard Rock Cafe’s large spinning guitar on Broadway. Except for a distant fire alarm and the sounds of a helicopter, downtown was quiet Friday afternoon.
The RV exploded just outside the Melting Pot, a fondue restaurant in a historic downtown building that was erected in 1867. Windows on either end of the building were blown out, as were the large, heavy doors at the building’s entrance. The explosion also triggered the sprinkler system, which flooded the restaurant for about eight hours.
“It’s a mess,” said Mark Rosenthal, one of the restaurant’s owners. “We have about 115 people working there, but that’s 115 people that now don’t have jobs. So that’s rough to think about.”
Freddie O’Connell, a city councilman who represents the affected area, said that dozens of people had been displaced and were brought to a triage area where they could be checked for injuries and stay warm on a bitterly cold morning. He said, “It’s going to be a little bit of time” before they can return to their residences.
“2020 already had plenty of devastation,” O’Connell said. “It’s hard to wake up on Christmas morning and see more of it in my hometown.”
The explosion punctuates an agonizing year for Nashville: In March, a deadly tornado swept through some of the city’s most bustling neighborhoods, which still have streets lined with mangled debris. And the coronavirus pandemic hit Tennessee hard — through the spread of the virus and then as it devastated a tourism industry that has thrived in recent years.
And now, Nashville has been rattled, left to confront a bizarre and terrifying mystery.
Tom Cirillo, who lives downtown, said the blast Friday reminded him of the tornado, a harrowing experience for Nashville as it raked through homes and businesses, leveling or partly collapsing 48 structures.
“It’s just sort of a terrible thing that it happened on a Christmas morning,” Cirillo said. “You’re lucky that it happened at the time that it did. I’m just wondering what exactly happened.”
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