NASHVILLE — 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 damaged dozens of buildings on Christmas morning.
More than 24 hours after the explosion, a motive remained elusive as investigators worked round-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 AP 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 around 500 tips and leads.
“It’s just going to take us some time,” Douglas Korneski, the special agent in charge 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.
Beyond that, the only known casualties were three injured people. The infrastructure damage, meanwhile, was broadly felt, due to an AT&T central office being affected by the blast. 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.
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.
Asked whether the AT&T building could have been a possible target, Korneski said, “We’re looking at every possible motive that could be involved.”
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. More than 40 buildings were affected.
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 drilling 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.”
Ray Neville, president of technology at T-Mobile, said on Twitter that service disruptions affected Louisville, Nashville, Knoxville, Birmingham 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 outages had even briefly grounded flights at the Nashville International Airport, but service was continuing normally as of Saturday. The Federal Aviation Association 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.
Associated Press photographer Mark Humphrey in Nashville and writer John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia, contributed to this report.
The COVID-19 numbers from the Tennessee Department of Health’s daily report for Saturday:
• Five new deaths reported Friday and seven Saturday; 9,230 new cases reported Friday and 5,165 Saturday.
• Pandemic totals are 6,443 deaths and 560,892 cases.
• 85% of case totals were “inactive/recovered.”
• New deaths by age Saturday: five in the 81-plus group; two in the 61-70 group.
• No new deaths Friday or Saturday; 396 new cases Friday and 451 Saturday for the eight-county region.
New deaths by county: none.
No new deaths were reported in Sullivan County (total 167); Washington County (153); Johnson County (28); Hancock County (four); Greene County (88); Hawkins (52); Carter (79); or Unicoi (38).
New cases by county: (Saturday) 118 in Washington; 53 in Greene; 62 in Carter; 141 in Sullivan; 48 in Hawkins; 24 in Unicoi; four in Johnson; and one in Hancock.
Active cases by county: 1,297 in Washington; 1,383 in Sullivan; 902 in Greene; 593 in Hawkins; 560 in Carter; 186 in Unicoi; 115 in Johnson; and 50 in Hancock.
Statewide: 18.98% of the 26,257 new test results reported Saturday by the TDH.
Ballad Health: 26% over the past seven days, for the health system’s service area, including Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
CHURCH HILL — Volunteer High School NJROTC cadets recently participated in the Wreaths Across America event at Mountain Home National Cemetery in Johnson City.
VHS senior naval science instructor Maj. Steven Bickford noted that cadets placed wreaths and honored deceased veterans in the frosty morning.
“Cadets learned about self-sacrifice and service to others by spending their Saturday morning doing for others,” Bickford said. “It is important for the cadets to learn about how they fit in their community: school, city, county, region and state. They learn about being a citizen through these practical lessons.”
Cherokee High School senior naval sciences instructor Chief Gary Stidham said he took 30 of his cadets to Mountain Home on Saturday as well, and they placed wreaths at approximately 200 graves.
The mission of Navy JROTC is to instill in cadets the values of citizenship, service to the United States, personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment.
Trips to military bases and universities around the region help accomplish this mission by showing cadets opportunities that await upon completion of high school.
Cadets receive academic credit for their enrollment in JROTC while earning community service hours, participating in extracurricular activities and developing leadership attributes.
Cadets have no military obligation for participating in JROTC, but they can receive promotion in the armed forces should they choose to enlist.
Far Southwest Virginia’s number of new COVID-19 cases neared 50, according to Saturday’s state data report.
The Virginia Department of Health said the LENOWISCO Health District reported 49 cases for totals of 4,581 and 114 deaths during the pandemic.
Wise County saw 26 cases for totals of 1,873 and 55 deaths. Lee County had 11 cases for 1,396 and 29 deaths.
Scott County had nine cases for 1,162 and 29 deaths. Norton added three cases for 150 cases and one death.
The VDH reported 1,584 new cases and 20 deaths statewide in the prior 24 hours for pandemic totals of 329,577 cases and 4,840 deaths.
The statewide testing rate for people with nasal swab and antigen tests in Saturday’s VDH report was 4,911,294 of 8.63 million residents, or 56.91%. For nasal swab testing only, 4,128,799 people have been tested to date, or 47.84%. In the LENOWISCO district, 30,844 of the region’s 86,471 residents have been tested via nasal swab sample for COVID-19, or 35.67%.
The seven-day average rate of positive PCR test results in the LENOWISCO district in Saturday’s report dropped from Thursday’s 22.7% to 22.1%. The statewide positivity rate rose from Thursday’s 11.5% to 12.1%.
One new COVID-19 outbreak in an unidentified correctional setting was reported in the LENOWISCO Health District Saturday for a total of 41 outbreaks during the pandemic.
Red Onion State Prison remained at 24 inmate cases and 15 active staff/contractor cases Saturday, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap remained at one inmate case and added one case for nine active staff/contractor cases. Wise Correctional Center near Coeburn remained at 24 inmate cases and two active staff/contractor cases.
According to Saturday’s VDH pandemic measures dashboard, daily case incidence in the far southwest region of Virginia — including the LENOWISCO Health District — was ranked as fluctuating after an 11-day drop in daily case rates. The far southwest region ranking for percent positivity of COVID-19 testing results was classed as decreasing based on a 20-day decrease in that measure.
All four school systems in the LENOWISCO district were ranked as highest-risk based on the 14-day case incidence rate in the district. For seven-day case incidence, Lee County and Norton City schools were ranked highest-risk, Wise County Schools higher-risk and Scott County Schools lowest-risk.
Do you think you might have COVID-19? Local health departments provide free testing.
The LENOWISCO Health Department, which covers Norton and Lee, Wise and Scott counties, posts regular updates on testing sites across the district and offers free COVID-19 tests at its county offices. Those seeking a test must call in advance for an appointment. Contact numbers for the county offices are:
• Lee County (Jonesville) — (276) 346-2011
• Scott County (Gate City) — (276) 386-1312
• Wise County and Norton (Wise) — (276) 328-8000
Additional testing and COVID-19 precaution information can be found at the LENOWISCO Health District’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/Lenowisco.
The Health Wagon will partner with the Virginia Department of Health to offer 17 sessions of free drive-thru testing at Food City in St. Paul through Dec. 31. Call (276) 328-8850 for an appointment.
In Southwest Virginia, online resources are available to help evaluate whether residents might be infected and where to get a COVID-19 test. The Virginia Department of Health’s COVIDCHECK (https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/covidcheck/) can walk a user through symptoms they may be experiencing and help direct them to their local health department office or other available testing sites.