Authorities probing Nashville blast converge on home in city’s suburbs

Investigators work near the site of an explosion on 2nd Avenue that occurred the day before in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. December 26, 2020. REUTERS/Harrison McClary

ANTIOCH, Tenn. – Authorities investigating the Christmas morning explosion in downtown Nashville converged on a home in Antioch, Tenn., about 10 miles southeast of the blast site Saturday afternoon, as law enforcement agents continued to gather evidence and run down hundreds of tips.

Investigators think the person living at that address has a connection to the bombing. One theory investigators are pursuing is that the man blew himself up in the RV, according to two people familiar with the matter, who cautioned that officials are still pursuing numerous leads and that no final conclusions have been reached.

Several neighbors said a light-colored recreational vehicle similar to the one that blew up Friday morning had been parked in the backyard of the home for several months before the explosion. So far, investigators have not found evidence pointing to other potential conspirators or threats to public safety, according to multiple people familiar with the case.

A day after the explosion, AT&T communication networks remained disrupted throughout Tennessee, knocking out residential phones, cellphones and service at 20 call centers for 911. Business and government functions were hobbled, and flights were temporarily grounded at Nashville International Airport.

Tony Rodriguez lives in the second home of the duplex that law enforcement searched today. He said investigators removed a computer motherboard from his neighbor’s home, among other affects.

Rodriguez said he never spoke to his neighbor and didn’t know his name. The few times Rodriguez saw the man, he was tinkering with an antennae above the house and power washing the driveway behind their home. Rodriguez said the neighbor kept several “No Trespassing” and warning signs around his property, particularly where he kept the RV.

“He always seemed like an oddball,” Rodriguez said.

In an afternoon news conference in Nashville, FBI special agent Douglas Korneski said that there was “activity going on” in the Antioch area but that he “can’t confirm any individuals or anybody we’ve identified.”

The blast rocked the city around dawn Friday when an RV detonated near an AT&T transmission building on the city’s busy Second Avenue, home to a strip of honky-tonk bars and restaurants.

The incident – which officials described as an “intentional act” and “deliberate bomb” – left dozens of buildings mangled and sent three people to the hospital with what police said were noncritical injuries.

Officials said Saturday that the city was safe and that there were no known threats, but the area remained sealed off and under curfew over the weekend as investigators combed through the wreckage.

“It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle created by a bomb that throws evidence over multiple city blocks,” U.S. Attorney Donald Cochran said. “They’ve got to gather it, they’ve got to catalogue it, they’ve got to put it back together and find out what the picture of that puzzle looks like.”

Earlier in the day, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee asked President Donald Trump for federal assistance in response to the explosion, saying the damage to businesses and the disruptions in Internet and cell service caused by the blast were too severe for the state to handle alone.

The Republican governor said he spent part of the morning touring the destruction left by the explosion. “The damage is shocking and it is a miracle that no residents were killed,” Lee wrote in a tweet.

In a letter to Trump, Lee referred to the incident as an “attack” carried out with a “vehicle-born improvised explosive device” and called on the president to issue an emergency disaster declaration, unlocking financial and physical assistance from the federal government.

The governor estimated that the state had spent at least $175 million responding to other disasters since early 2019 and said federal help was essential.

“These extraordinary state and local expenditures have reduced our capacity to recover from this current event,” Lee wrote. “Given these factors, the severity and magnitude of the current situation is such that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments.”

The White House has not publicly responded to Lee’s request. Trump was briefed on the situation yesterday and is monitoring developments, a spokesperson said Friday.

The shocking sequence of events leading to the explosion began before daybreak Friday morning, when residents were startled awake by the crackle of gunfire and called 911. Some later speculated that the noise was a recording intended to wake them up.

Shortly afterward, a strange warning began to play from a light-colored, older-model RV parked on Second Avenue.

“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. The warning soon changed to a 15-minute countdown, prompting some residents to flee.

Police arrived at the scene around 6 a.m. local time. They didn’t see any evidence of a shooting, officials said, but saw the RV and called in a bomb squad. A half-dozen officers went door-to-door telling residents to leave the area, even turning away a man walking his dog.

The vehicle detonated at 6:30 a.m., spraying debris and ash through the streets and sending a column of flames and smoke curling above the rooftops.

Near the spot where the RV was parked on Second Avenue, about 15 people were at the five-story Nashville Downtown Hostel – a much smaller number than the capacity of 300, because of the pandemic and Christmas. Unlike some others in the area who evacuated before the blast, the staff and guests at the hostel were unaware of the situation until the blast went off at 6:29 a.m., a time recorded by the building’s closed-circuit television camera.

The video from the camera, provided by the hostel to The Washington Post, shows a double set of glass doors at the entrance, with “NASHVILLE” printed on them in dark lettering. Three police officers can be seen walking at a steady pace on the street. Moments later, the blast blows out the doors; debris rains down. Flashes of light fill the scene as the concussive force ripped across the entryway.

Ron Limb, 54, the hostel’s owner, was home in bed, awakened by a call from someone at the hostel. It is one of two such properties he owns in Nashville, a city that he said he fell in love with when he moved from California, attracted by its vibrant culture and youthful outlook. The building began life in 1880 and once was a candy factory. Limb bought it in 2011, spent a year restoring it, and has since introduced thousands of guests from around the world to his adopted hometown.

Limb said the staff rushed into action.

“They went around, knocked on every door, got every guest out of the building,” Limb said. “Some were asleep, rushed out in pajamas and underwear, without provisions to deal with the 20-degree weather.”

Limb said fire sprinklers had been activated, causing flooding in the building. Police blocked him from the scene for security reasons, and he spent hours trying to get the city to turn off the water, a task he said was accomplished midday Saturday.

The area around the blast site remained closed off as agents worked their way inward from the outermost perimeter of the crime scene. A curfew remained in effect for the area through Sunday.

While there were no confirmed fatalities, Nashville Police Chief John Drake said in a Friday night news conference that officers found tissue that could be human remains near the explosion that they were preparing to examine. He said police had not identified a suspect or motive. The department released a photo of the RV, which they said arrived on the street at 1:22 a.m. Friday.

As of Saturday afternoon, city workers were assisting AT&T in restoring power to the transmission building so cell service could resume, Nashville Fire Chief William Swann said. But it would take one or two days to “get everything back online,” Swann added.

“It’s a big operation with the building itself,” he told reporters.

Efforts were complicated by a fire that reignited in the building Friday night, AT&T said Saturday.

When asked by The Post, the communication giant did not share how many customers had been impacted by outages, but in a statement, the company announced that it had deployed at least two portable cell sites in downtown Nashville.

The outage had knocked out service for residents but also disrupted businesses’ ability to process credit cards and communicate, at a time when many are already reeling from the pandemic’s economic fallout.

Soon after the explosion, it became clear that there was another public safety challenge: outages among 911 call centers. Approximately 100 emergency call centers throughout the region faced problems, estimated Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association. Disruptions included centers not receiving calls or location data from AT&T Wireless customers.

The nation’s aging infrastructure of 911 centers can face complications when trying to reroute call traffic after an outage – especially when the point of failure is one like the transmission building that services a major city.

“I think if nothing else there will be a lot of lessons learned from this,” Fontes said.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper said at least 41 businesses were damaged and “there will be others as we see the full extent of this.” He said the city would focus on rebuilding but cautioned that it “will be some time before Second Avenue is back to normal.”

In his letter to Trump, Lee noted that many of the buildings rocked by the blast were historic and needed to be assessed by an engineer to make sure they are structurally sound.

As business owners and residents started to take stock of the damage Saturday, a city non-emergency number for people in the affected area remained out of service.

“We are aware property owners/residents are experiencing difficulties, and are working to resolve them as soon as possible,” Cooper tweeted. “Please know the explosion impact area is still a federal investigation zone.”

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