An explosion linked to a vehicle sent debris and shattered glass into the streets, and injured three people.
NASHVILLE — First came the warning, then came the blast, shattering the Christmas morning silence in the heart of the city’s tourist district.
Before dawn on 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 an R.V., blaring a strange and unsettling message: There was a bomb. It would detonate in 15 minutes.
When the R.V. 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 deliberate. 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. “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.”
A vehicle burning near the site of the explosion
The police released a photo of the R.V. on Friday afternoon and said the vehicle had arrived on Second Avenue North at 1:22 a.m. The R.V. 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 R.V. when it exploded, officials said. In a news conference on 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 experienced 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. At least 41 businesses have been materially damaged by the explosion, he said. Fire officials added that one building across from the explosion collapsed.
Visible Damage From the Explosion
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. But, he added later in the day, that solace had shifted to resolve to find the perpetrators and rebuild.
“This morning’s attack on our community was intended to create chaos and fear in this season of peace and hope,” Mr. Cooper said.
The F.B.I. 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 spokesman said in a statement. Mr. Rosen became the acting attorney general on Wednesday after William P. Barr stepped down.
Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee said in a statement on Twitter that 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.
A spokesman for President Trump said the president had been briefed on the explosion and was “grateful for the incredible first responders and praying for those who were injured.”
The authorities said the explosion happened around 6:30 a.m. outside 166 Second Avenue 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,” Mr. 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 voice announced through a speaker on the R.V. that a bomb would detonate, and then began a countdown interspersed with music, the police said.
A bomb squad was on its way. But it was too late. The R.V. exploded, exactly as the recording had warned.
Don Aaron, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, said the officers’ quick work in evacuating the area helped prevent the explosion from causing more harm. “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 R.V. exploded just outside the Melting Pot, a fondue restaurant in a downtown building, like many others in the area, that was erected in the late 19th century. 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. “It’s going to be a little bit of time,” he said, before they can return to their residences.
“2020 already had plenty of devastation,” Mr. O’Connell said. “It’s hard to wake up on Christmas morning and see more of it in my hometown.”
Damage near the scene of the explosion on Friday, in a photo from the Nashville Fire Department.
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.
“One more event in Nashville’s 2020,” Mr. Cooper said in a news conference on Friday.
Tom Cirillo, who lives downtown, said the blast on Friday reminded him of the tornado, a harrowing experience for Nashville as it raked through homes and businesses, leveling or partly collapsing 48 structures. In addition to the damage, signs declaring “Nashville Strong” still dot the city.
“It’s just sort of a terrible thing that it happened on a Christmas morning,” Mr. Cirillo said. “You’re lucky that it happened at the time that it did. I’m just wondering what exactly happened.”
Lawrence Cosson was sleeping on the street outside one of the downtown bars when he felt the explosion. He said the ground shook and he could hear alarms sounding in nearby buildings. When a police officer guided him away from the area, he said, “I saw there was so much debris coming from the other side of the building.”
The explosion interrupted the Rev. Jayd Neely, the pastor at St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows, as he finished his morning prayers. He thought it could be construction, a common occurrence, near his Roman Catholic parish, which is a few blocks from the explosion and across the street from the Tennessee State Capitol. But then he realized that was unlikely on a holiday.
That it could be an intentional act is troubling, he said. “It’s really evil,” Father Neely said, “especially on Christmas Day.”
Jennifer and Darrin Sanders, who were visiting Nashville from outside Pensacola, Fla., stood outside Hotel Indigo Friday morning loading suitcases in their pickup truck. The explosion shook their bed on the 15th floor and, now, had cut their vacation short.
Ms. Sanders said she was grateful to be safe, but she now felt “a little uneasy.”
They had chosen Nashville for their Christmas trip, drawn by the impressive light show at Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center and after hearing it was an up-and-coming city.
They visited Broadway and ate at Skull’s Rainbow Room. They did not make it to Gaylord.
“It’s been a long year,” Mr. Sanders said. “We wanted to get away.”