Building owners got their first look Tuesday of the damage done when a 63-year-old tech worker detonated his explosives-packed RV in downtown Nashville on Christmas morning. They found a scene of devastation: mangled cars, twisted trees, shorn shopfronts and, everywhere they looked, the residue of a thunderous blast.
“There was just broken glass and debris everywhere,” said Devon MacPherson, 33, who leases a building’s worth of short-term rental units. “Pretty much every window on Church Street was busted out.”
Friday’s explosion killed only the bomber, with a countdown clock warning residents and officers to evacuate or perish in the blast zone. Tennessee’s top investigator said Monday that the bomber’s goal appeared to have been “more destruction than death.”
The destruction was extensive, running well into the millions of dollars and affecting at least 41 buildings, many of them historic 19th-century structures along Second Avenue North.
Now Nashville business owners face difficult decisions over how and whether to rebuild following a year marked by a pandemic, a tornado, civil unrest and, to cap it all off, a terrorist-style attack, the motive for which may never be known.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) has asked President Trump for federal help in recovering from the blast, saying in a letter to the White House on Saturday that the damage was too extensive for the state to handle alone. He called for Trump to issue an emergency disaster declaration under the Stafford Act, unlocking financial and physical support from the federal government.
The “severity and magnitude of the current situation is such that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments,” he wrote.
A spokesperson for Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said Tuesday that “we expect an announcement to be forthcoming soon.”
But even with help, businesses remain in limbo.
MacPherson and a business partner recently signed — and personally guaranteed — a 20-year lease on a 7,000-square-foot property. They invested $250,000 renovating each of its floors into separate short-term rental units. More than half of the money was borrowed, much of it from family and friends, including $60,000 from MacPherson’s mother.
After devastating setbacks due to the coronavirus pandemic, he had hoped that bookings for New Year’s Eve would allow 2020 to end on a high note and create momentum going into 2021.
“We were ready to make $20,000 a month. Now, that’s all gone,” MacPherson said Tuesday.
As he spoke, he scrolled through photographs on his phone showing overwhelming damage: shattered windows, collapsed ceilings, and brick walls cracked floor to ceiling.
“Our building is not going to be usable for months,” he said. “The whole front of my building looks like it’s about to fall off.”
MacPherson was not allowed on Tuesday’s tour — only building owners were permitted. But he had managed to talk his way inside the perimeter after a police officer took pity on him when his truck ran out of gas while idling at the checkpoint.
“I guess I’m fortunate that I didn’t have a lot of gas money right now,” he joked as he spoke in historic Printers Alley, behind his building.
Once inside police lines, he saw investigators in white suits combing the site, along with bomb-sniffing dogs and men wielding radiation detectors. Nashville firefighters were busy removing the remaining shards from broken windows to prevent them from falling onto the sidewalks below.
Visibly shaken, MacPherson described the fear and uncertainty of his predicament. He, his girlfriend and two children had already been subsisting largely on a six-month supply of MREs he purchased earlier in the year. While the building’s owner has been willing to accept just 50 percent of the rent during the pandemic, he’s also charging 5 percent interest on the balance. If the full amount can’t be repaid by the end of 2021, MacPherson said, he and his partner will default.
“I knew this property was a winner, and we invested everything in it,” he said. “Then, pandemic. Now, this. I really didn’t see this coming.”
Investigators say they are still in the early stages of understanding why Anthony Q. Warner carried out Friday’s attack. He was a loner who authorities said was not on their radar before the blast.
Warner regularly took his RV to a nearby park to try to find evidence of aliens, according to people familiar with the investigation. Other evidence reviewed by investigators suggests he was attracted to a number of outlandish theories about extraterrestrials secretly living on Earth.
It is not immediately clear what role such theories might have played in his decision to blow himself up. The people said Warner claimed to at least one person that he had recently been diagnosed with cancer. But officials are trying to determine whether that was true or merely a cover story Warner offered as he put his affairs in order before his death, these people said.
Investigators have also looked at whether Warner’s distrust of 5G technology — and phone service in general — played a role in the attack. The blast occurred just outside an AT&T communications hub, and the impact disrupted service in multiple states.
Many of the affected businesses, however, were not giants like AT&T.
Sandy Lee said she had struggled to find a building owner who would rent to her because “we weren’t a famous name, a famous shop, or a famous musician.”
But her two Second Avenue businesses — a fashion boutique called Ensemble and its sister store, Simply The Best $10 Boutique — had thrived. Until Friday, at least.
Ensemble was completely gutted in the blast, Lee said.
“The other store, the building is still standing, but we have no idea how stable it is,” she said Tuesday. She has not been permitted to visit, so she has had to make her assessments based on photos shared by others.
Lee was with her family on Christmas morning when she heard a ping on her phone around 6:45 a.m. A friend texted to say there had been an explosion downtown, near her stores.
She ran out to tell her husband, who was smoking a brisket. They were glued to the TV all day, trying to figure out what the impact might be. It wasn’t until the next day that she really realized the extent of the damage.
She said her shops have been successful, and she loves the “quirkiness and individuality” of the street. But she worried that it could take years to rebuild, especially if the reconstruction has to meet historic standards.
“We love Second Avenue North, but those buildings are all pre-Civil War and they kind of lean on each other,” she said. “Some of them, the structure, it’s literally a shell now. So what happens to the building next to it?”
Nashville Metro Council member Freddie O’Connell, whose district includes the bomb site, said the attack was not only damaging to business owners. It also struck at the soul of the city, a follow-up blow to the tornado that wreaked havoc in the historic Germantown neighborhood earlier this year.
“Between the tornado and this, we just lost some of Nashville’s historic character and beauty in two of the most important places they exist,” he said.
One crucial question in the rebuilding process is whether insurance companies will pay out claims for damage in what could be declared a terrorist attack.
“If you don’t have, quote, terrorism insurance, you might not get any coverage at all for your business being blown up,” said Mark P. Chalos, a Nashville attorney whose office is just south of the blast site.
Even without that uncertainty, Lee said she was unsure of the path ahead.
Others insisted they would reopen, somehow.
“The show will go on,” said Michelle Terrazas, general manager of Bowie’s nightclub on Third Avenue North. As she spoke, her hand was bandaged and caked with dried blood after getting sliced by glass while helping a friend repair damage at his nearby store.
“Crazy,” she said. “Unfathomable something like this could happen.”
Firozi and Witte reported from Washington. Derek Hawkins and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.