At least three people were injured in an early Christmas morning RV explosion that tore through downtown Nashville that was preceded by a broadcast from the vehicle warning of an imminent detonation.
With an investigation led by federal officials still underway, Nashville police chief John Drake told reporters in an evening press conference that tissue believed to be human remains was found within the blast radius. The tissue was sent to a medical examiner for analysis.
Police have not said whether they have any suspects.
Drake said authorities were caught off-guard, noting they had not received any warnings or threats ahead of the explosion. He called the situation a “total surprise.”
He also said investigators have not yet determined a motive. “I don’t want to speculate, but you would think that this person didn’t want to harm people, that maybe he just wanted to destroy, but we’re not sure until we get further into the investigation,” Drake said.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper released a statement saying he signed an executive order issuing a state of civil emergency in the area, as well as a curfew starting at 4:30 p.m. Central Time until Sunday at 4:30 p.m.
Officials said at the evening press conference that at least 41 buildings were damaged in the blast.
I have signed Executive Order 12 to issue a state of civil emergency proclaimed within the area bounded by James Robertson Parkway, 4th Ave north, Broadway and the Cumberland River. A curfew will start at 4:30pm, Friday Dec 25. and be lifted Sunday, December 27 at 4:30pm. pic.twitter.com/jZ484LrHZ7
— Mayor John Cooper (@JohnCooper4Nash)
December 25, 2020
The Metro Nashville Police Department held a press conference around noon alongside federal officials in which they said downtown Nashville had been shut down for an investigation.
“This morning around 5:30 a.m., officers responded to a call for shots fired in the downtown area,” Drake said. “As officers responded, they encountered an RV that had a recording saying a potential bomb would detonate within 15 minutes. Officers, upon hearing that, decided to evacuate the buildings nearby, so they began knocking on doors, making announcements … communicating with everyone to get people safe. Shortly after that, the RV exploded.”
Explosive-detection dogs are sweeping the area for other devices, but authorities do not believe there is any imminent danger. They are coordinating with federal officials, including those from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
Don Cochran, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, said the FBI and ATF were taking the lead. The federal prosecutor said he had briefed acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, who took over for William Barr after he departed the Justice Department this week. Cochran said Rosen told him “to tell the police chief and Nashville that we are devoting the entire resources of the Department of Justice to help in their investigation.”
Mickey French, the special agent in charge of the ATF, said the agency’s national response team had been activated to get to the bottom of the explosion. Matt Foster, the assistant special agent in charge with the FBI, said the bureau was bringing in experts to investigate, including from the FBI Laboratory, the FBI Hazardous Devices School, and evidence response teams from around the country.
“The FBI stands with the city of Nashville today in this very tragic Christmas Day event. This is our city too. We live here, we work here, and we’re putting everything we have into finding who is responsible for what’s happened here today,” Foster said, adding: “We will find out what happened here.”
Don Aaron, a spokesman for the Metro Nashville Police Department, said authorities do not know whether anyone was in the vehicle at the time it exploded.
Police previously said they believed the explosion, which took place near the AT&T Building, was an “intentional act.” Three people were taken to a hospital for minor injuries. One officer was “blown to the ground” and sustained hearing loss, which Aaron said he hoped would be temporary.
Nashville police also shared what appeared to be a surveillance video screenshot of the RV from before the explosion, asking the public to reach out to the FBI if anyone has information.
Nashville resident Betsy Williams told the Tennessean she woke up around 4:30 a.m. after hearing what sounded like gunshots then called 911. She said she later heard a voice coming from the RV warning residents about a bomb set to detonate.
“Evacuate now. There is a bomb. A bomb is in this vehicle and will explode,” Williams recalls hearing the warning say.
The White House said President Trump, who is in Florida for Christmas, is being kept apprised of the situation.
“President Trump has been briefed on the explosion in Nashville, Tennessee, and will continue to receive regular updates. The President is grateful for the incredible first responders and praying for those who were injured,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said.
President-elect Joe Biden was also briefed on the explosion, his transition team said. “The president-elect and Dr. Biden thank all the first responders working today in response to the incident, and wish those who were injured a speedy recovery,” the statement added.
The Metro Nashville Office of Emergency Management told WKRN the explosion caused damage to several buildings.
Images and video of the damage showed flames and smoke in the area where the explosion erupted. Alarms inside several buildings could be heard, and in one video, a bystander can be heard screaming for help. Trees lining the streets near the explosion were reportedly blackened.
Emergency crews closed a 10-block radius around the site, according to WSMV. As people fled the area, smoke was visible this morning across the Nashville skyline.
Residents across Nashville reported an outage of internet services hours after the explosion.
AT&T internet and phone service was disrupted in the area around 12 p.m. Central Time, concentrated mostly in the Nashville and middle Tennessee areas, as the blast was near a transmission building. The telecommunications issues caused the Federal Aviation Administration to halt flights at Nashville International Airport briefly.
Some local police departments said the disruptions also interfered with access to 911. Alternative assistance phone numbers are available.