On a holiday many hoped would bring a sense of calm in a chaotic year, the early-morning explosion dealt a terrifying blow.
“This is not how anybody wanted to spend Christmas morning,” Nashville Mayor John Cooper said at a news conference. “We are very lucky that there were not more injuries.”
“One more event in Nashville’s 2020,” he added.
Police and city officials called the incident an “intentional act” — Cooper (D) called it a “deliberate bomb” — and vowed to bring a plethora of local, state and federal law enforcement resources to bear to find a suspect. While there were no confirmed fatalities, Nashville’s police chief said investigators found tissue that could be human remains near the explosion that they were preparing to examine.
The chain of events began around 5:30 a.m. local time, when residents on Second Avenue, home to a row of restaurants and honky-tonk night clubs, heard what they thought were rapid-fire gunshots. Some later speculated that the sound of gunfire was an amplified recording designed to awaken them.
Then came a bizarre recorded warning from a loudspeaker on the RV, police and residents said.
“It was a computerized message of ‘Evacuate now. … This vehicle has a bomb and will explode,’” said Betsy Williams, who lives in a building adjacent to the blast site.
Soon after, the message changed to a 15-minute countdown to detonation.
Officers responded to the area about 6 a.m. local time after receiving a report of gunfire on Second Avenue North, said Don Aaron, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department.
When they arrived, Aaron said, they didn’t see any immediate evidence of gunshots but encountered a “suspicious” RV parked near an AT&T transmission building, heard the broadcast message coming from the vehicle and called in the police bomb squad.
Officers went door to door, telling residents to evacuate, even turning around one man who was out walking his dog, Aaron said. Moments later, at about 6:30 a.m., the RV detonated near Second Avenue North and Commerce Street, smashing windows, signs and garage doors and sending a ball of bright orange flames into the sky.
The explosion destroyed storefronts, scattered ash and debris through the streets and sent at least three people to the hospital with noncritical injuries, police said.
Cooper said the explosion was “intended to create chaos and fear in this season of hope.”
In an evening news conference, he said the city was imposing a curfew on the area around the explosion through Sunday and was working with the governor to declare a civil emergency.
At least 41 businesses were damaged, the mayor said.
“We stand with our downtown residents and business owners for whom this was a terrible day,” he said.
Nashville Police Chief John Drake said police had not identified a suspect or a motive. He said it was not clear whether anyone was inside the vehicle when it detonated.
In a video posted on social media, which The Washington Post has not independently verified, a voice can be heard saying: “This area must be evacuated now. If you can hear this message, evacuate now.” The message was followed by the sounds of an explosion, and the video of the street scene turned to a blur.
Aaron credited the officers on the scene who alerted residents to evacuate. “We think lives were saved by those officers,” he said.
Three people were injured, including one officer who was knocked off his feet, according to police. Bomb-sniffing dogs combed the area as a precaution but no other explosives were found, Aaron said.
Several of the buildings have structural damage, officials said. Police do not know whether anyone was in the RV when it exploded, “so I can’t tell you at this point whether there is a fatality in this scenario,” Aaron said.
Williams, the Second Avenue resident, said she was asleep with her wife, Kim Madlom, when they were jolted awake by the sound of gunfire a little before 5:30 a.m. and called 911. When the sound repeated in the same pattern, she figured it must have been a recording, she said.
“It was like it was being fired right next to your head almost,” Madlom told The Post. “It was unrealistically loud in retrospect, and it was the exact same pattern all three times.”
Peering out her third-story window, the 59-year-old said she could see an RV parked across the street. It was a light-colored vehicle the size of a small bus that looked at least a couple of decades old, she said.
As she surveyed the scene, a voice came booming from the camper: “It was saying, ‘This vehicle has a bomb, you must evacuate the area.’”
Then a countdown message began, telling people they had 15 minutes to leave, Madlom said. She and her three family members decided to flee. “That was the thing that made us go,” she said.
They scrambled into an elevator as the RV blared an 11-minute warning, then piled into their car to keep watch from a secure distance. After about 20 minutes, there was no explosion. Thinking the whole episode was a “sick prank,” Madlom said, they headed back.
The RV detonated just as they were rounding the corner back onto Second Avenue, according to Madlom.
“It was the biggest plume of fire that shot up,” she said. “We could see that from up the street. We were just shocked.”
From a block away, they could see that their building’s back windows were blown out. Somehow, Madlom said, their Christmas tree was still lit. Firefighters soon arrived and told them to clear the area.
Madlom, who works as a vacation property manager and hospital receptionist, says she and her family are staying in a local hotel, processing what happened and counting their blessings. Their building is badly damaged, and they don’t know what, if any, belongings they’ll be able to recover. But they’re grateful they weren’t physically harmed.
“We almost didn’t go,” she said. “We almost didn’t take it seriously. Whoever did this certainly intended for us all to leave.”
Police said the department’s hazardous-devices unit was headed to the area when the explosion happened.
“We do believe the explosion was an intentional act,” Aaron, the police department spokesman, told reporters.
Supervisory Special Agent Joel E. Siskovic said the FBI is leading the investigation, working with state and local authorities.
“The main thing right now is public safety to make sure that everyone in the surrounding area is accounted for and, at the same time, ensuring that the city itself is safe from any other potential incident,” said Michael Knight, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Nashville, which is also probing the incident.
Investigators are working to create a timeline of events before and after the explosion, Knight said.
The explosion was felt at nearby residential facilities, including a hostel and a condominium building called the Exchange Lofts. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic and Christmas, there were far fewer people at those buildings than usual.
Windows and doors were blown out at the hostel, a low-cost residence for travelers, and the handful of guests were evacuated. At the upscale Exchange Lofts, where condos are typically owned as second homes by business executives, the impact of the explosion was recorded by a Nest security camera in a unit owned by music executive Aaron Trevethan.
In the video, the tranquil scene of couches and chairs arrayed around a flat-screen television is suddenly interrupted by sounds of a blast, which sent bright flashes of light through the windows, caused debris to fall from the ceiling and resulted in a swaying effect captured by the camera.
Trevethan, who was at his California home when he was alerted early Christmas morning about the blast, said it is hard to tell the extent of damage from the video because “everything shook so bad.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) said on Twitter that he would “supply all of the resources needed to determine what happened and who was responsible.” He thanked first responders and called on Tennesseans to join him and his wife “in praying for those who were injured.”
The Justice Department said in a statement that acting attorney general Jeffrey A. Rosen had been briefed on the incident and had “directed that all DOJ resources be made available to assist in the investigation.”
Hours after the blast took place, President Trump left his Mar-a-Lago resort and headed to Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla. The president spent at least three hours at the club, his second consecutive day there since arriving in Florida for the holidays.
Trump did not comment about the blast, but the White House said he was monitoring the situation.
“President Trump has been briefed on the explosion in Nashville, Tennessee, and will continue to receive regular updates,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. “The President is grateful for the incredible first responders and praying for those who were injured.”
The White House has said Trump is spending his time in Florida participating in calls and meetings, though officials have not provided any details on his activities.
President-elect Joe Biden was briefed on the explosion, according to his office.
“The president-elect and Dr. Biden thank all the first responders working today in response to the incident,” Biden’s office said in a statement, “and wish those who were injured a speedy recovery.”
Matt Zapotosky, Devlin Barrett, Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins and Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.