Vehicle in Downtown Nashville Blared a Warning—Then Exploded

Spencer Ackerman, Noah Shachtman
via REUTERS
via REUTERS

An RV broadcast a warning to passersby in downtown Nashville of an imminent explosion. Then the vehicle detonated early Christmas morning. Police are calling it an “intentional act.”

The FBI, which has taken the co-lead in the investigation of a stunning act of violence, pledged to mobilize its resources to “find out what happened today and bring those responsible to justice.”

Imagery from the scene showed black smoke shooting upward high into the sky after a 6:30 a.m. detonation. Three people have been taken to area hospitals with non-critical injuries. But the blast tore entire facades off some buildings, rendering them burned-out husks above streets littered with broken masonry, glass, and other debris from multiple storefronts near the Cumberland River. Nashville Mayor John Cooper said 41 businesses were “materially damaged” in the blast. Newscopter footage showed damage to buildings 15 stories high.

At a Friday evening press conference, Nashville Police Chief John Drake said he could not confirm whether authorities had found human remains near the blast site. “We have found tissue that we believe could be remains and we’ll have that examined and be able to let you know at that point,” Drake said.

Nashville resident Kim Madlom, a 59-year-old vacation rental manager, told The Daily Beast that she was awoken before 5 a.m. by what she thought was the sound of gunfire.

“We weren’t panicked or anything—we live downtown, so we’re used to gunfire. But it woke us up,” she said.

“Then five minutes later, it happened again. That’s why we now think it might have been recorded. I called 911 at 5:32 a.m. Then it [the shots] happened again for a third time.”

According to Drake, officers responded to a call that shots were fired in the area. Upon reaching the scene, they encountered an RV that played an apparent recording that a bomb would detonate “in 15 minutes.” After the announcement, the RV played music interspersed throughout the countdown.

That lines up with what Madlom saw and heard.

“I peeked out my window and saw an RV across the street. Didn’t think anything about it. Then I heard this voice, saying, ‘You must evacuate. This vehicle is armed with a bomb,’” she said.

A video posted to YouTube that appears to show the area from a street-facing stationary camera presents a female-sounding voice repeating: “This area must be evacuated now. If you can hear this message, evacuate now.” Then an explosion occurs, scattering debris visible under the camera.

Madlom told The Daily Beast that she saw and heard the message from the RV. “That is exactly the voice we heard,” she said of the surveillance-camera footage.

Madlom went down to the street briefly when the countdown started but sprinted upstairs when she saw police at both ends and the countdown dwindling. “I said to my family, ‘We gotta go.’”

The family of four took off in their pajamas and went out the back door to the garage area. They drove across the Cumberland River and parked behind the Nissan Stadium, where the NFL’s Tennessee Titans play. “I could see our Christmas tree in our window,” Madlom said.

The family sat there and watched it for about 20 minutes, but everything seemed relatively quiet. So after 6 a.m, “we decided to go home.”

They drove down Second Avenue, and then: a boom. “That’s when the explosion went off. We saw this big plume of fire and smoke.”

Nashville Fire Chief William Swann said “many people” were displaced by the explosion.

Authorities, briefing reporters five hours after the explosion, neither attributed a motive nor indicated they had suspects in custody.

Drake said police scattered around downtown’s Second Avenue, off of Commerce Street, to wake residents and evacuate them from their homes. “Shortly thereafter, the RV exploded,” Drake said. It knocked one officer to the ground, though the officer did not appear to be seriously injured.

The FBI’s special agent in charge of its Nashville field office, Matt Foster, said the bureau was sending in its technical experts, including hazardous-devices specialists, to gather evidence from “this massive crime scene.” His counterpart at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Mickey French, said the ATF’s national-response teams had been activated and would provide chemists, engineers, and other forensic experts. Foster and local police indicated that potential witnesses are cooperating with law enforcement.

Police officers have established cordons and patrols around downtown and throughout the egresses to the city. K9 units and firefighters were on the scene to acquire evidence, ensure the structural soundness of area buildings and aid anyone who may be trapped. But Nashville and federal authorities said they had no reason to believe a follow-on incident would occur.

Late on Friday afternoon, Nashville police released a surveillance photo of a white RV they said was the one that detonated. Unknown persons were driving it on Second Avenue as of 1:22 a.m. Thus far authorities have not said whether the RV was empty when it exploded.

Nashville resident Buck McCoy claims he heard what he believed to be gunfire 15 minutes before the explosion went off nearby.

It felt like a bomb. It was that big,” he told The Associated Press.

Resident Carissa Kelly told WKRN that her nearby apartment was “completely destroyed” by the blast. “Everything’s broken, glass everywhere—I mean everyone’s apartment, doors were all broken through.”

WKRN anchor Josh Breslow tweeted before the police response: “The entire @WKRN studio just shook. Anyone else in Nashville just feel any weird shaking ??”

Another local man, David Malloy, took his German shepherd for a walk around 6:30 a.m., only to encounter a police officer approaching from the middle of Second Avenue who warned him to evacuate. Footage broadcast on WKRN shows Malloy talking with the officer, whose back is to the explosion.

“It’s been Nashville’s hardest year,” Mayor John Cooper, who went to the scene this morning, told The Tennessean. Cooper said that while the bombing “seems intentional,” it is likely “a one-off event and people should not be concerned about” a follow-on incident.

“But in a year that has had everything else, let’s add an explosion to it,” Cooper said.

Police spokesperson Don Aaron credited the officers’ predawn rush to evacuate sleeping residents with preventing a potentially deadly Christmas incident.

“We think lives were saved,” Aaron said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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