What We Know About the Nashville Explosion on Christmas Day

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Federal agents were seen at a brick building on Saturday where an R.V. similar to the one that exploded had been parked in 2019.

Federal agents said on Saturday that they do not yet know who carried out the Christmas Day explosion that ripped through the city’s downtown, mangling storefronts, injuring three people and leaving the city mystified as to the motive.

Investigators were tracking down more than 500 leads, working to piece together what happened before an R.V. — apparently rigged with explosives and parked on a street in the tourist district — detonated in the early hours of Christmas. The blast devastated the neighborhood, which regularly draws thousands of people each night, and officials said the city was lucky no one was killed.

Douglas Korneski, the F.B.I. special agent in charge of the Memphis office, said at a news conference that more than 250 F.B.I. employees were working the case, but that they still had many unanswered questions.

“Our investigative team is turning over every stone to make sure we know as many details as possible to answer the question of who is responsible for this, and also to understand, why did they do this?” he said.

Several dozen investigators with the F.B.I. and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began searching a brick duplex in Antioch, a neighborhood in the Nashville area, on Saturday morning. Images of the same building from March and May of 2019, captured on Google Street View, show an R.V. in the yard that appears identical to the one police say was detonated.

A federal law enforcement official familiar with the investigation said authorities had identified a 63-year-old man who apparently owned an R.V. similar to the one in the bombing and were seeking to question him.

Mr. Korneski and other officials indicated at the news conference that it was still unclear how many people were involved in the crime.

Investigators were working on the scene of the explosion on Saturday, but federal agents said they still had many unanswered questions.
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

The chilling detail that a warning blared from the R.V. before the blast had many wondering about the perpetrator’s motive. The message, which one witness recalled coming from a mechanical, female-sounding voice, warned that a bomb would detonate within 15 minutes, then began a countdown interspersed with music, the police said. Officers had arrived at the scene before dawn that morning to investigate reported gunshots, and they were scrambling to clear the area of people when the R.V. detonated.

Among the buildings damaged was an AT&T transmission building, causing widespread service outages that continued on Saturday. Cellphone service was down and 20 or more 911 call centers were affected in parts of Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama, Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee said. The disruption in communications also led the Federal Aviation Administration to temporarily halt flights out of the Nashville International Airport.

Here’s what to know about the explosion.

Before the explosion, Betsy Williams said she heard what she thought were gunshots early on Friday, then she noticed the R.V. parked across the street from her apartment.

“It started playing this message,” she recalled. “‘Evacuate now. This vehicle has a bomb and will explode. Evacuate now.’”

When the voice began the countdown, Ms. Williams said, she and her family abandoned their apartment and rushed to safety.

“It’s not like bad weather or a fire, or something like that,” she said. “You’re going, ‘OK, is this for real?’ Well, it was.”

Police on the scene called for a bomb squad, but it was too late. The R.V. exploded around 6:30 a.m. Ms. Williams watched the blast from afar.

Metro Nashville Police Department, via Associated Press

It is not yet clear who carried out the attack, but the police did release a picture of the R.V., saying its driver drove the vehicle to the curb in front of an AT&T transmission building on Second Avenue North at 1:22 a.m. on Friday. The building is a few blocks from the phone company’s landmark office tower in the city. The image shows the vehicle heading through downtown with its headlights on, the white camper illuminated by streetlights and glowing storefronts.

On Saturday, the police were still trying to figure out whether anyone was inside the R.V. when it exploded. They said they found what could be human remains in the blast area.

The site of the explosion is in a stretch of downtown with honky-tonks, restaurants and other tourist destinations, including a Hard Rock Cafe, the Redneck Riviera bar and barbecue and the Honky Tonk bus tour company. Even as they vowed to track down the person or people responsible, the authorities said the explosion could have been much worse had it happened on almost any other night, when the sidewalks might have been filled with people.

The F.B.I. field office in Memphis is leading the investigation, and the mayor issued an emergency order until Sunday to keep people away from the blast site. Several businesses and people with ties to Nashville have offered a reward for anyone who provides information to solve the case.

Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

The consequences of the blast were far-reaching.

Shattered glass and bricks were strewn about downtown. Trees were charred by the explosion’s flames and broken water mains were spewing water.

The explosion also damaged the AT&T building, causing widespread service outages that continued on Saturday. The explosion affected some cell service across parts of Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama, and hindered the communication of 20 or more 911 call centers, Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee said.

Visible Damage From the Explosion

Friday’s explosion in Nashville blew out windows for several blocks. Highlighted areas below show where damage was visible in early photos and videos.

Bicentennial

Park

Shattered

windows visible

Collapsed facade

on all floors

First Ave. North

Extent of debris

and fallen trees

Area of blast

Second Ave. North

Church St.

Commerce St.

AT&T Transmission Building

NORTH

50 FEET

Church St.

Second Ave. North

50 FEET

Shattered

windows

visible

Collapsed

facade on

all floors

Area

of blast

First Ave. North

Extent of

debris

NORTH

Shattered

windows visible

Collapsed facade

on all floors

First Ave. North

Extent of debris

and fallen trees

Area of blast

Church St.

AT&T Transmission Building

NORTH

50 FEET

Aerial imagery by Vexcel Imaging via Bing Maps

By Eleanor Lutz and Derek Watkins

The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily halted flights out of the Nashville International Airport because of telecommunications issues caused by the blast. The F.A.A. also labeled the skies within about one mile of the blast “national defense airspace,” meaning pilots are prohibited from flying overhead without special authorization.

To those who felt the blast, its widespread effects are not surprising.

“The whole neighborhood shook,” said Lily Hansen, who was sitting on a couch in her second-floor apartment a few blocks away. “It looked like something you would see in a horror movie. I just can’t get the image out of my head.”

Buck McCoy, who lives less than a block from the site of the explosion, said his home was destroyed by the blast.

“It just ripped my entire apartment apart,” he said. “There wasn’t one part of the house that wasn’t shook.”

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Six police officers who knocked on doors and shouted instructions to evacuate to people who lived around the R.V. before it exploded were being heralded on Saturday for saving lives.

The officers “literally ran to danger” when they responded to a report of gunfire but instead encountered the R.V. blaring a harrowing warning about a bomb, Donald Q. Cochran, the U.S. attorney in Nashville, said at a news conference on Saturday.

“I’m quite confident that their actions are part of the reason why there was less cost of life in this heinous act,” Mr. Cochran added.

Among the officers were two women and four men with a range of experience. Once officer had only been with the department for 16 months, while another was a veteran sergeant who has policed Nashville for 11 years. Chief John Drake credited them all.

“These officers didn’t care about themselves — they didn’t think about that,” Mr. Drake said on Friday. “They cared about the citizens of Nashville.”

Officials said at least 41 businesses — including several historic buildings — had been damaged by the explosion and that one across the street from the R.V. had collapsed.

On Saturday morning, Mr. Lee, a Republican, toured the scene and shared a letter he wrote to President Trump, asking him to declare an emergency disaster for Tennessee and send federal aid to help recover, given the “severity and magnitude” of the destruction.

Mayor John Cooper, a Democrat, vowed that Nashville would quickly rebuild.

The attack “was intended to create chaos and fear in this season of peace and hope,” Mr. Cooper said. He said that despite the destruction, the city appeared to have avoided a deadly attack because it happened on Christmas.

“Any other morning, it would have been a much worse story, to be sure,” he said.

Adam Goldman, Jamie McGee, Rick Rojas and Lucy Tompkins contributed reporting. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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