SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
In Nashville, hundreds of investigators, including FBI and ATF agents, are combing the site of the Christmas morning blast to understand how and why someone would pack an RV with explosives and then blow it up. A source in the city administration close to the investigation has told NPR that they suspect it was caused by a suicide bomber. At least three people were injured. Authorities credit police evacuations for holding down casualties. As NPR's John Burnett reports from Nashville, the explosion devastated buildings at the heart of the city.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: U.S. Attorney Don Cochran yesterday described the debris field as massive.
DON COCHRAN: Having been up there and seeing that scene, it's like a giant jigsaw puzzle created by a bomb that throws pieces of evidence across multiple city blocks. And they've got to gather it. They've got to catalog it. They've got to put it back together and try to find out what the picture of that puzzle looks like.
BURNETT: The widening probe led a team of agents to search a two-story brick house in a Nashville suburb yesterday and carry out bags of evidence. Google Maps Street View shows a white RV similar to the one suspected in the Christmas bombing parked next to the house. No one has been taken into custody, and officers have not publicly named any suspects. There are no confirmed fatalities, although the medical examiner is looking at tissue found at the scene as possible human remains. The swelling task force is chasing down some 500 tips left by the public, but authorities have not described a broader plot.
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JOHN DRAKE: To everyone, let me reiterate that Nashville is safe.
BURNETT: That's Police Chief John Drake telling his city not to fear more bombs. He had this message for distressed business owners along Second Avenue, the epicenter of the blast.
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DRAKE: But we ask that you be patient. There's about 40 buildings that's been impacted, and so those buildings will have to be cleared through our codes.
BURNETT: Broken window glass litters the downtown streets. Water pipes ruptured and froze. Burned out hulls of cars sit near the blast crater. Incinerated Chinese elm trees lie helter skelter. Tom Morales owns Acme Feed and Seed, a popular restaurant and music venue, an 130-year-old building downtown. The explosion blew his windows out four blocks away. These Victorian storefronts compose the downtown historic district.
TOM MORALES: This attack was really an attack on the soul of Nashville.
BURNETT: But why downtown? Why Second Avenue? And why did the RV detonate in front of an AT&T data center which shut down its telecom network for hundreds of miles? Investigators insist they'll get to the bottom of it. A real estate broker named Brian Lewis (ph), who lives two blocks away, stopped at the edge of the blast zone to reflect on the past 36 hours.
BRIAN LEWIS: It's crazy. You know, we've got the greatest city in the South, and it's just - we don't ever have anything like this happen here. You know, it's just...
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LEWIS: We're just totally off guard with something like this. This is just - there's no words to describe it. It's just scary. It's harrowing. But, you know, we're a strong city. We've been through the tornadoes this year, and we'll pull together. We'll get through this, too.
BURNETT: 2020 has been hard on the whole country but especially so here in Nashville. First, there were the tornadoes he mentioned. In March, a series of twisters roared through the area, killing 25 people and demolishing entire neighborhoods. Then in May, a freak wind storm called a derecho blew through Nashville, knocking out power to tens of thousands of homes. Then there's the pandemic that's deadened the local tourism economy. What's more, Nashville leads Tennessee's soaring coronavirus infection rate, one of the worst in the nation. Says local state representative Bob Freeman...
BOB FREEMAN: And now this - I mean, it's been a tough, tough year, and I'm ready to get it in the rearview mirror and move on to '21.
BURNETT: This booming Southern metropolis wants nothing so much as to put the bombing behind it, rebuild Second Avenue and get back to some semblance of normal. John Burnett, NPR News, Nashville.
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