NASHVILLE – The FBI was leading an investigation Friday into an explosion that erupted in downtown early Christmas morning, an incident that rattled residents for miles and is being called “intentional” by authorities.
Police were responding to reports of shots fired near Second Avenue and Commerce Street before 6 a.m. when they saw a suspicious RV outside a nearby AT&T building.
Officers alerted the department’s bomb squad, which was en route, when a “significant explosion” happened about 30 minutes later, Metro police spokesperson Don Aaron said. The force of the explosion knocked an officer to the ground.
Betsy Williams, the owner of The Melting Pot, a restaurant across the street from the explosion, told The Tennessean that guests reported the RV was stationed there since Thursday night.
Williams, who lives in a loft apartment on the third floor of the restaurant building, said she heard the sound of loud, rapid-fire gunshots at about 4:30 a.m. After multiple rounds of gunshot sounds, Williams said she called 911. Then, she said, she heard a repeated warning she said came from the RV parked outside her building.
“Evacuate now. There is a bomb. A bomb is in this vehicle and will explode,” she remembers the recorded warning saying. Then, she said, the voice started a 15-minute countdown.
Her family headed to Nissan Stadium, about a half-mile away and waited. When they didn’t hear an explosion, they headed back. That was when they saw a fireball fly over the AT&T building on Second Avenue.
“Whoever did it did give fair warning,” Williams said.
Three people were hospitalized with injuries, police said. None are in critical condition. At least 20 buildings were damaged, Nashville Mayor John Cooper said. It was unclear whether anyone was inside the RV when it exploded.
Nashville Metro Police were going door-to-door with canines in the downtown areas to search nearby buildings and automobiles, though there is no indication of any additional devices.
Several people were taken to the department’s central precinct for questioning, but authorities declined to give more details Friday morning.
The FBI is taking the lead in the investigation, spokesman Joel Siskovic said, and will be working in conjunction with state and local authorities. Federal investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were also in Nashville late Friday morning.
The sound of the explosion could be heard from miles away, and people reported windows shaking from South and East Nashville.
Plumes of black smoke filled the air and several fires flared along what is typically a busy street that intersects with Nashville’s famed tourist attraction, Lower Broadway. Alarms inside several buildings were heard going off, and water poured into some buildings, causing structural damage and breaking windows.
Trees lining Second Avenue were blackened from the incident.
Gov. Bill Lee said in a statement that the state would provide needed resources to determine what happened and who was responsible.
Cooper said he toured the damage, describing broken glass and water mains with insulation “blown up” into the trees.
“It looks like a bomb went off,” he said. The downtown area will be “sealed off” for further investigation and to make sure everything is “completely safe,” he said.
“One more event in Nashville’s 2020,” Cooper said.
President Donald Trump has been briefed and will continue to get regular updates, according to White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere.
“The president is grateful for the incredible first responders and praying for those who were injured,” Deere said in a statement.
Andrew Carr, who is staying at the Viridian apartments on Fourth Avenue and Church Street, told The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network, he jumped out of bed when he heard what sounded like a “giant thunderclap.”
He looked out the window and said he saw a “huge fireball” rising up behind an AT&T building on Second Avenue and Commerce Street – describing it almost as “wide as the building itself.”
Carr said for the next hour he and his family watched the black smoke plumes rise into the sky and could later see debris on top of the AT&T building.
Residents in the apartment building, he said, have been put in lockdown.
The owner of the nearby Nashville Downtown Hostel told The Tennessean guests were evacuated to Nissan Stadium for shelter. He said he got a call early Friday from his staff who reported hearing a “loud boom” and the fire alarm going off.
He said the hostel is damaged but did not go into details.
Contributing: The Associated Press