A recreational vehicle exploded in downtown Nashville on Christmas morning in what police described as an “intentional act,” and fire officials reported taking three people to hospital but none of them critically injured.
“The explosion was significant, as you can see … The police department, its federal partners — the FBI and ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) — are conducting a large-scale investigation to this point,” said Don Aaron, Nashville police spokesman.
“We do believe that the explosion was an intentional act.”
The blast also caused widespread communications outages that knocked police emergency systems offline, as well as grounding flights at the city’s airport.
Police described the vehicle, parked in the heart of Tennessee’s capital city at 6 a.m. CST (7 a.m. EST) on Friday, as an RV — a recreational vehicle of a type that could range from a motor home to a camper trailer.
It was unclear if anyone was inside the vehicle and the motive was unclear, police said.
During a press conference, Nashville Police Chief John Drake said they had found “tissue that we believe could be remains” on Friday following the blast, but that they needed to examine it further to determine a connection.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper said at the same press conference that the “deliberate bomb” intended to create chaos and fear in a “season of peace and hope” in the community.
“But Nashvillians have proven time and time again that the spirit of our city cannot be broken,” he said after signing an executive order to issue a state of emergency and curfew in the area.
The explosion was felt nine blocks away and destroyed several other vehicles and damaged several buildings, launching black smoke in the sky that could be seen for miles. At least 41 Nashville businesses were damaged by the explosion, according to Cooper.
Cooper urged people to stay away from the downtown area, as police and federal authorities launched their investigation.
Authorities were on their way to the scene of a report of a suspicious vehicle when the explosion occurred about 6:30 a.m. on Friday, sending shattered glass and debris over a wide area and rocking nearby buildings.
Andrew McCabe, a former deputy FBI director, told CNN that an explosion of this size would be investigated as a possible act of terrorism. He said it was possible police were the target of the explosions given they were answering a report of a suspicious vehicle when it blew up.
Black smoke and flames were seen early Friday billowing from the area, which is packed with bars, restaurants and other retail establishments and is known as the heart of downtown Nashville’s tourist scene.
Buildings shook in the immediate area and beyond after a loud boom was heard.
Warning before explosion
A recording from the RV emitted a chilling warning minutes before it exploded.
“This area must be evacuated now. This area must be evacuated now. If you can hear this message, evacuate now. If you can hear this message, evacuate now,” went the recording for several minutes, broadcast later on NewsChannel5, Nashville.
Nashville police Chief John Drake said the announcement warned the “bomb would explode in 15 minutes.”
About the same time, police received an emergency call of “shots fired” in the downtown tourist area, said Aaron, the Nashville police spokesman. After arriving, they called in the bomb squad, which was on its way when the explosion occurred.
The fire department sent out a tweet asking residents and others to avoid the area.
Moments before the blast, police officers went door to door in nearby buildings to hustle residents to safety and motioned a man walking his dog near the vehicle to change direction.
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 and cries of people in great distress ring in the background. A fire is visible in the street outside.
McCoy said the windows of his home were entirely blown out.
“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 told The Associated Press.
“There were about four cars on fire. I don’t know if it was so hot they just caught on fire, and the trees were all blown apart.”
Nashville, the capital of the U.S. state of Tennessee, is also the U.S. capital of country music.
Car bombings in the United States are rare.
A 1995 truck bombing in Oklahoma City killed 168 people, including 19 children, and wounded hundreds. Timothy McVeigh was executed by lethal injection in June 2001 for the attack.
— With files from Reuters, The Associated Press.