NASHVILLE – A recreational vehicle parked on the deserted streets of downtown Nashville exploded early Christmas morning, causing widespread communications outages that disrupted police emergency systems and grounded vacation travel at the city’s airport. Authorities said they believe the explosion was deliberate.
Police responded to a report of gunfire fired Friday when they stumbled upon the RV and issued a pre-recorded warning that a bomb would explode in 15 minutes, said John Drake, chief of police for Metro Nashville. The police evacuated nearby buildings and called the bomb squad. The motor home exploded shortly afterwards, Drake said at a press conference.
“It looks like a bomb went off on Second Avenue,” said Nashville Mayor John Cooper after touring the site. Cooper issued a state of emergency and a curfew on the region.
The police did not immediately give a possible motive or target.
Human remains were found near the explosion, two police officers told The Associated Press. It was unclear how the remains were related to the explosion, or whether they might belong to the person believed to be responsible or the victim. The officers were unable to publicly discuss an ongoing investigation and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
The surveillance video, which was posted on a Twitter account on Friday and appeared to be across the street from the explosion, captured the RV’s warning: “… if you can hear this message, evacuate now” seconds before the explosion.
The explosion caused black smoke and flames to rise from the heart of the tourist scene in downtown Nashville, an area teeming with honky tonks, restaurants, and shops. Buildings shook and windows razed the streets from the explosion near an AT&T building one block from the company’s office tower, a downtown landmark.
“We don’t know if it was a coincidence or if it was intentional,” said police spokesman Don Aaron. He previously said that some people had been taken to the department’s central district for questioning but refused to provide details.
AT&T said the affected building is the headquarters of a switchboard with network equipment. The blast disrupted service, but the company declined to say how widespread outages were.
“Service for some customers in the Nashville area may be affected by damage to our facilities from the explosion this morning. We are in contact with law enforcement and are working to restore service as quickly and safely as possible,” said Jim Greer. AT&T spokesman in a statement emailed.
The AT&T outage showed service problems in Middle Tennessee and Kentucky, including Bowling Green, about 65 miles north of Nashville. Several law enforcement agencies reported that their 911 systems were down due to the failure, including Murfreesboro and Knox County, home of Knoxville, about 180 miles east of Nashville.
The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily suspended flights from Nashville International Airport due to telecommunications issues related to the explosion.
The FBI will take the lead in the investigation, said agency spokesman Joel Siskovic. Investigators from the Federal Office for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were also on site. The FBI is the primary law enforcement agency responsible for investigating federal crimes such as explosives violations and acts of terrorism.
After the explosion, three people were taken to hospitals for treatment, although none were in critical condition, Aaron said.
A Philadelphia man who stayed at a nearby hotel said when he heard the explosion he knew it was not harmless.
“We tried to explain that it was an earthquake or something else, but it was obvious it wasn’t an earthquake,” said Joseph Fafara. He said he traveled to Tennessee with his family for Christmas because the state has stricter COVID-19 restrictions than Philadelphia.
When he looked at the damage, police barriers had already been set up. Police dogs continued to search nearby cars and buildings at lunchtime.
Buck McCoy, who lives near the area, posted videos on Facebook showing water flowing down the ceiling of his home. Alarms and screams from people in need sound in the background. A fire is visible in the street outside.
McCoy said he heard gunshots, set fire to cars in the street and blew trees apart 15 minutes before the explosion that shook his building.
“All of my windows, every single one of them, was blown into the next room. If I had stood there it would have been terrible,” he said.
“It felt like a bomb. It was so big,” he told The Associated Press.
President Donald Trump has been briefed, according to White House spokesman Judd Deere. The US Justice Department said acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen has also been informed and instructed to use all of the Department’s resources to assist with the investigation. President-elect Joe Biden has also been informed, his office said.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee said on Twitter that the state will provide the necessary resources “to determine what happened and who is responsible”.
The American Red Cross of Tennessee announced that it would work with officials to open a shelter for the victims.