NASHVILLE — An explosion rocked downtown Nashville on Christmas morning, sending smoke rising high above the city, blowing out store windows and forcing evacuations. The authorities said they believed the explosion was an “intentional” act.
No one was killed, but three people were injured and taken to hospitals, officials said at a news conference on Friday.
The authorities said the explosion happened at 6:30 a.m. outside 166 2nd Ave. N in downtown Nashville in an area with honky-tonks, restaurants and boot stores and often packed with tourists, but which was quiet on a holiday morning.
The police responded to reports of gunshots around 5:30 a.m., according to Don Aaron, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department. While investigating the gunshots, they encountered an R.V. that was broadcasting a recording that said a “potential bomb would detonate within 15 minutes,” said Chief John Drake of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department.
Officers called in a hazardous devices unit, or bomb squad, which was en route when the vehicle exploded. Officers were also evacuating nearby apartment buildings when the R.V. exploded.
“We think lives were saved by those officers doing just that,” Mr. Aaron said.
It is still unclear if a person was inside the R.V. when it exploded, he said. The R.V. was parked outside an AT&T transmission building in downtown Nashville, a separate building from the landmark 33 story AT&T office tower less than half a mile away, and Mr. Aaron said it is unclear whether that was intentional or a coincidence. AT&T is experiencing an outage in the area because gas lines have been shut off in the area, impacting the building’s backup natural gas generators.
The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily halted flights out of the Nashville International Airport “due to telecommunications issues associated with this morning’s incident in downtown,” the airport said on Friday afternoon.
A photo of the R.V. was released on Twitter by the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department Friday afternoon. The R.V. arrived on 2nd Ave. North at 1:22 a.m., according to the post.
F.B.I. Memphis, in coordination with state and local law enforcement, was taking the lead in the investigation. “Acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen was briefed on the incident early this morning and directed that all DOJ resources be made available to assist in the investigation,” a Justice Department spokesman said in a statement. Mr. Rosen became the acting attorney general on Wednesday after William P. Barr stepped down.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said that it was joining the investigation and Chad F. Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, had been briefed.
Mayor John Cooper said at a news conference that the area looked like a “bomb went off.” “Don’t come to downtown Nashville. It’s going to be sealed off,” Mr. Cooper said, adding that had the explosion taken place on a weekday morning, the outcome could have been far different.
The explosion tore through the heart of an area that has been one of Nashville’s biggest tourist draws. On Second Avenue, just a block away from the Cumberland River, the blast left the roadway blackened with debris, including scorched trees and the hulls of vehicles destroyed by the explosion. The authorities have cordoned off a large section of the city’s downtown, which is packed with law enforcement officials but is relatively quiet.
Freddie O’Connell, a Nashville council member for the area affected by the explosion, said the number of evacuees was “in the dozens” and they were at a field site set up by the city’s Office of Emergency Management for general safety, warmth and medical triage. He estimates “it’s going to be a little bit of time” before they can return to their residences. Along Second Avenue and Commerce, many of the residential properties are in the upper levels of buildings — particularly warehouses — built in the late 19th century.
Lawrence Cosson was sleeping on the street outside one of the downtown bars when he felt the explosion. He said the ground shook and he could hear alarms sounding in nearby buildings. When a police officer guided him away from the area, he said, “I saw there was so much debris coming from the other side of the building.”
Some have already drawn comparisons to the deadly tornado that swept through a swath of Nashville in March. Rows of mangled buildings still line streets in some parts of the city.
Lily Hansen, 33, was sitting on her couch on Friday morning having her coffee when she felt her building rattle, heard a sudden boom, and looked out her window to see orange smoke coming from the explosion site. “It looked like something you would see in a horror movie,” she said. Ms. Hansen lives on the second floor of a loft building a few blocks from where the explosion happened, she said. “The whole neighborhood shook,” she said. “I just can’t get the image out of my head.”
Tom Cirillo, who lives downtown, said the blast on Friday reminded him of the tornado; the explosion was louder, he said. He was troubled by the blast, he said, but was also grateful that it occurred at a time when an area that is often bustling was quiet and cleared of crowds.
“It’s just sort of a terrible thing that it happened on a Christmas morning,” Mr. Cirillo said. “You’re lucky that it happened at the time that it did. I’m just wondering what exactly happened.”
Mr. Cooper, the mayor, said that he had toured the damaged area, and reported seeing broken glass, downed trees and water main breaks.
“It’s not a very populated area, but the people in the buildings adjacent mostly are fine and have been evacuated,” he said. “One more event in Nashville’s 2020.”
He said he was “praying for those who were injured” and was thankful to the emergency workers.
“President Trump has been briefed on the explosion in Nashville, Tennessee, and will continue to receive regular updates,” Judd Deere, a spokesman for the president, said. “The President is grateful for the incredible first responders and praying for those who were injured.”
WeGo Public Transit, the city’s bus system that serves the greater Nashville area, said service was not disrupted but buses were helping the authorities to clear the area and get individuals out of the cold.
Hours after the explosion, several fire trucks were gathered at the edge of downtown and blue lights flashed under the Hard Rock Cafe’s large spinning guitar on Broadway. Except for a distant fire alarm and the sounds of a helicopter, downtown was quiet.
The Rev. Jayd Neely, the pastor at St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows Catholic Church, located a few blocks from the explosion, was finishing his morning prayers when he heard the explosion. At first he considered the possibility it was construction, but knew that was unlikely on Christmas morning.
That it could be an intentional act is troubling, he said. Now only a handful of parishioners can attend services scheduled for noon and musicians are unable to come because of road closures, so there will be no music. “It’s really evil,” Father Neely said, “especially on Christmas Day.”
Mr. O’Connell, the Nashville council member, said “2020 already had plenty of devastation.” He added, “It’s hard to wake up on Christmas morning and see more of it in my hometown.”
Jamie McGee reported from Nashville; Lucy Tompkins from Bozeman, Mont.; Derrick Bryson Taylor from London; Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio from New York; and Hamilton Matthew Masters and J.R. Lind contributed reporting from Nashville. Michael S. Schmidt also contributed.