Person of interest identified in Nashville RV explosion as FBI visits home


Federal agents converged Saturday on the home of a possible person of interest in the explosion that rocked downtown Nashville as investigators scoured hundreds of tips and leads in the blast that pulverized city blocks on Christmas morning and damaged dozens of buildings.

More than 24 hours after the explosion, a motive remained elusive as investigators worked around-the-clock to resolve unanswered questions about a recreational vehicle that blew up on a mostly deserted street on a sleepy holiday morning and was prefaced by a recorded warning advising those nearby to evacuate. The attack, which damaged an AT&T building, continued to wreak havoc Saturday on cellphone service and police and hospital communications in several southern states.

Investigators from multiple federal and local law enforcement agencies were at a home in Antioch, in suburban Nashville, after receiving information relevant to the investigation, said FBI Special Agent Jason Pack. Another law enforcement official, who was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said investigators regard a person associated with the property as a person of interest.

Federal agents could be seen looking around the property, searching the home and the backyard. A Google Maps image had shown a similar recreational vehicle parked in the backyard when the photo was captured in May 2019; an Associated Press reporter at the scene did not see the vehicle at the property in the late afternoon Saturday.

There were other signs of progress in the investigation, as the FBI revealed that it was looking at a number of individuals who may be connected to it. Officials also said no additional explosive devices have been found — indicating no active threat to the area. Investigators have received about 500 tips and leads.

A vehicle burns near the site of an explosion in Nashville on Christmas Day. Officials say the explosion was intentional but have not provided a motive. (Andrew Nelles/Tennesssean.com/USA Today/Reuters)

“It’s just going to take us some time,” Douglas Korneski, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Memphis field office, said at a Saturday afternoon news conference. “Our investigative team is turning over every stone” to understand who did this and why.

Human remains found at scene

Separately, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a report Saturday that tissue samples found at the scene were determined to be human remains.

The attack continued to wreak havoc on communications systems across the state. Police emergency systems in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama, as well as Nashville’s COVID-19 community hotline and a handful of hospital systems, remained out of service due to an AT&T central office being affected by the blast. The building contained a telephone exchange, with network equipment in it — but the company has declined to say exactly how many people have been impacted.

WATCH | Nashville explosion wounds 3:

The CBC’s Derek Stoffel reports on the latest developments on the explosion that shook the largely deserted streets of downtown Nashville early Christmas morning. 1:31

Investigators shut down the heart of downtown Nashville’s tourist scene — an area packed with honky-tonks, restaurants and shops — as they shuffled through broken glass and damaged buildings to learn more about the explosion.

Mayor John Cooper has enforced a curfew in the downtown area until Sunday via executive order to limit public access to the area.

AT&T said restoration efforts are facing several challenges, which include a fire that “reignited overnight and led to the evacuation of the building.” This has forced their teams to work with safety and structural engineers and to drill access holes into the building in order to reconnect power.

“Our teams continue to work around the clock on recovery efforts from yesterday morning’s explosion in Nashville,” the company said in a Saturday statement. “We have two portable cell sites operating in downtown Nashville with numerous additional portable sites being deployed in the Nashville area and in the region.”

Communications systems damaged

Gov. Bill Lee asked the White House on Saturday for federal assistance due to the “severity and magnitude” of the explosion’s impact. At least 41 buildings were damaged, and communications systems — including residential and cellphone service and 911 call centres — failed across the state, he said. Kentucky and northern Alabama were also affected, he said.

Ray Neville, president of technology at T-Mobile, said on Twitter that service disruptions affected Louisville, Ky., Nashville, Knoxville, Tenn., Birmingham Ala., and Atlanta. “We continue to see service interruptions in these areas following yesterday’s explosion. Restoration efforts continue around the clock & we will keep you updated on progress,” he said in a tweet Saturday.

The explosion damaged dozens of buildings. (Nashville Fire Department/Reuters)

The outages had even briefly grounded flights at the Nashville International Airport, but service was continuing normally as of Saturday. The Federal Aviation Administration has since issued a temporary flight restriction around the airport, requiring pilots to follow strict procedures until Dec. 30.

According to Metro Nashville police Chief John Drake, police officers responded on Friday to a report of shots fired when they encountered the RV blaring a recorded warning that a bomb would detonate in 15 minutes. Police evacuated nearby buildings and called in the bomb squad. The RV exploded shortly afterward.

Law enforcement officials have said since shortly after the explosion occurred at about 6:30 a.m. CT that they believe the blast was intentional. They have not talked publicly about a possible target or motive.

In West Virginia, a hospital system said Saturday that it was experiencing network connection issues directly related to the Nashville explosion. South Charleston-based Thomas Health, which operates two hospitals, said on its Facebook page that it didn’t have an estimated time of restoration.

Similarly, Sumner Regional Medical Center in Gallatin, Tenn., said on its Facebook page that it was operating without access to some of its systems, including medical records.

“We prepare for situations like this and moved immediately to paper records. There has been no disruption to the delivery of patient care, and no cause for concern for this temporary issue,” the centre said in a post Friday.

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