NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A recreational vehicle parked in the deserted streets of downtown Nashville exploded Christmas morning, causing widespread communications failures that took down police emergency systems and grounded holiday travel at the city's airport.
Police believe the blast was intentional but don't yet know a motive or target, and Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake noted that officials had not received any threats before the explosion.
Three people taken to hospitals were in stable condition Friday evening, Nashville Mayor John Cooper said. They included an officer who was knocked off his feet, according to police.
Police were responding to a report of gunfire Friday when they encountered the RV blaring a recorded warning that a bomb would detonate in 15 minutes, Drake said. Police evacuated buildings and called in the bomb squad. The RV exploded shortly afterward, Drake said.
On a holiday many hoped would bring a sense of calm in a chaotic year, the explosion dealt a terrifying blow.
"This is not how anybody wanted to spend Christmas morning," Cooper said at a news conference at which he issued a curfew for the area. "We are very lucky that there were not more injuries."
"One more event in Nashville's 2020," he said.
"This morning's attack on our community was intended to create chaos and fear in this season of peace and hope. But Nashvillians have proven time and time again that the spirit of our city cannot be broken," Cooper said.
President Donald Trump was briefed, according to White House spokesperson Judd Deere. President-elect Joe Biden also was briefed, according to his office.
The U.S. Justice Department said acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen was briefed and directed all department resources be made available to help with the investigation.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said on Twitter that the state would provide the resources necessary "to determine what happened and who was responsible." The American Red Cross of Tennessee announced that it was working with officials to open a shelter for victims.
While there were no confirmed fatalities, the police chief said investigators found tissue that could be human remains near the explosion that they were preparing to examine. Police could not say whether it potentially was from someone inside the RV.
SMOKE AND FLAMES
The explosion interrupted the Rev. Jayd Neely, 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 Catholic parish, which is a few blocks from the explosion and across the street from the 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," Neely said, "especially on Christmas Day."
Surveillance video published on a Twitter account that appeared to be across the street from the blast captured the warning issuing from the RV: "... if you can hear this message, evacuate now," seconds before the explosion.
The blast sent black smoke and flames billowing from the heart of downtown Nashville's tourist scene, an area packed with honky-tonks, restaurants and shops. Buildings shook and windows shattered streets away from the explosion near a building owned by AT&T that lies a block from the company's office tower, a landmark in downtown.
"We do not know if that was a coincidence, or if that was the intention," police spokesman Don Aaron said. He said some people were taken to the department's central precinct for questioning but declined to give details.
Bomb-sniffing dogs combed the area, but no other explosives were found, Aaron said.
Aaron credited the officers on the scene who alerted residents to evacuate. "We think lives were saved by those officers," he said.
Police said the department's hazardous-devices unit was headed to the area when the explosion happened.
AT&T said the affected building is the central office of a telephone exchange, with network equipment in it. The blast interrupted service, but the company declined to say how widespread failures were.
The AT&T outages site showed service issues in middle Tennessee and Kentucky. Several police agencies reported that their 911 systems were down, including in Knox County, home to Knoxville about 180 miles east of Nashville.
AT&T said it was sending in portable cell sites and was working with law enforcement authorities to get access to make repairs to its equipment. The company noted that "power is essential to restoring" service.
The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily halted flights out of Nashville International Airport because of telecommunications issues associated with the explosion.
The FBI will be taking the lead in the investigation, agency spokesman Joel Siskovic said. Federal investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also were on the scene.
'FELT LIKE A BOMB'
A Philadelphia man staying in a hotel said that when he heard the blast, he knew it wasn't harmless.
"We tried to rationalize it that it was an earthquake or something, but it was obvious it wasn't an earthquake," Joseph Fafara said.
When he went to look at the damage, police barricades had already been put in place.
"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."
Buck McCoy, who lives near the area, posted videos on Facebook that show water pouring down the ceiling of his home. Alarms blare in the background along with cries of people in distress. A fire is visible in the street outside.
McCoy said he heard gunfire 15 minutes before the explosion rocked his building, set cars in the street on fire and blew trees apart.
"All my windows, every single one of them, got blown into the next room. If I had been standing there, it would have been horrible," he said.
"It felt like a bomb. It was that big," he said.
Betsy Williams, who lives in a building near the blast site, 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 said. "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, Madlom said.
"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 said she and her family are staying in a 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 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."
The explosion destroyed storefronts, scattering ash and debris through the streets, police said. At least 41 businesses were damaged, the mayor said. Several of them have structural damage, officials said.
"We stand with our downtown residents and business owners for whom this was a terrible day," the mayor said.
The explosion was felt at nearby residential facilities, including a hostel and a condominium building called the Exchange Lofts. However, because of the coronavirus pandemic and Christmas, there were far fewer people in those buildings than usual.
Windows and doors were blown out at the hostel, a low-cost residence for travelers, and the few 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 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 of the blast, said it is hard to tell the extent of damage from the video because "everything shook so bad."
The RV 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 area, said dozens of people had been displaced and were taken 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," O'Connell said. "It's hard to wake up on Christmas morning and see more of it in my hometown."
Information for this article was contributed by Kimberlee Kruesi, Michael Balsamo, Eric Tucker and Thalia Beaty of The Associated Press; by Derek Hawkins, Paulina Firozi, Michael Kranish, Matt Zapotosky, Devlin Barrett, Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins and Toluse Olorunnipa of The Washington Post; and by Jamie McGee, Rick Rojas, Lucy Tompkins and Derrick Bryson Taylor of The New York Times.