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After Nashville blast, Tennessee governor asks Trump for emergency disaster declaration

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Saturday asked President Trump for federal assistance in response to the Christmas morning explosion in downtown Nashville, saying the damage to businesses and the disruptions in Internet and cell service caused by the blast were too severe for the state to handle alone.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Saturday asked President Trump for federal assistance in response to the Christmas morning explosion in downtown Nashville, saying the damage to businesses and the disruptions in Internet and cell service caused by the blast were too severe for the state to handle alone. The Republican governor said he had toured the destruction left by the explosion, which occurred at dawn Friday when a recreational vehicle detonated near an AT&T transmission building on the city’s busy 2nd Avenue, home to a strip of honky-tonk bars and restaurants.

The incident — which officials described as an “intentional act” and “deliberate bomb” — left dozens of buildings mangled and sent three people to the hospital with what police said were noncritical injuries. “The damage is shocking and it is a miracle that no residents were killed,” Lee wrote in a tweet Saturday morning. Couple race from Nashville building after warning of explosion In a letter to Trump, Lee referred to the incident as an “attack” carried out with a “vehicle-born improvised explosive device” and called on the president to issue an emergency disaster declaration, unlocking financial and physical assistance from the federal government. He said the explosion disrupted AT&T communication networks throughout Tennessee, and caused other interruptions in parts of Kentucky and Alabama, knocking out residential phones, cellphones, and service at 20 call centers for 911. Business and government functions were hobbled, and flights were temporarily grounded at Nashville International Airport, Lee said. The governor estimated that the state had already spent at least $175 million responding to other disasters since early 2019 and said federal help was essential. “These extraordinary state and local expenditures have reduced our capacity to recover from this current event,” Lee wrote. “Given these factors, the severity and magnitude of the current situation is such that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments.” The shocking sequence of events leading up to the explosion began before daybreak Friday morning when residents were startled awake by the crackle of gunfire and called 911. Some later speculated that the noise was a recording intended to wake them up. Shortly after, a strange warning began to play from a light-colored, old-model RV parked on 2nd Avenue. “It was a computerized message of ‘Evacuate now. … This vehicle has a bomb and will explode,’” said Betsy Williams, who lives in a building adjacent to the blast site. The warning soon changed to a 15-minute countdown, prompting some residents to flee. Police arrived at the scene around 6 a.m. local time. They didn’t see any evidence of a shooting, officials said, but saw the RV and called in a bomb squad. A half-dozen officers went door-to-door telling residents to leave the area, even turning away a man walking his dog. The vehicle detonated at 6:30 a.m., spraying debris and ash through the streets and sending a column of flames and smoke curling above the rooftops. Near the spot where the RV was parked on Second Avenue, about 15 people were at the five-story Nashville Downtown Hostel — a much smaller number than the capacity of 300, due to the pandemic and Christmas. Unlike some others in the area who evacuated before the blast, the staff and guests at the hostel were unaware of the situation until the blast went off at 6:29 a.m., a time recorded by the building’s closed-circuit television camera. The video from the camera, provided by the hostel to The Washington Post, shows a double set of glass doors at the entrance, with “NASHVILLE” printed on them in dark lettering. Three police officers can be seen walking at a steady pace on the street. Moments later comes the blast, blowing out the doors and raining debris. Flashes of light fill the scene as the concussive force ripped across the entryway. Ron Limb, 54, the hostel’s owner, was home in bed, awakened by a call from someone at the hostel. It is one of two such properties he owns in Nashville, a city that he said he fell in love with when he moved from California, attracted by its vibrant culture and youthful outlook. The building began life in 1880 and once was a candy factory. Limb bought it in 2011, spent a year restoring it, and has since introduced thousands of guests from around the world to his adopted hometown. Limb said the staff rushed into action. “They went around, knocked on every door, got every guest out of the building,” Limb said. “Some were asleep, rushed out in pajamas and underwear, without provisions to deal with the 20-degree weather.” Limb said fire sprinklers had been activated, causing flooding in the building. Police blocked him from the scene for security reasons, and he spent hours trying to get the city to turn off the water, a task he said was accomplished midday Saturday. Local and federal investigators were just beginning to comb through the wreckage and run down leads on a suspect Saturday. The area around the blast site remained sealed off as agents gathered evidence from the scene and scanned the streets with bomb-sniffing dogs. A curfew remained in effect for the area through Sunday. While there were no confirmed fatalities, Nashville Police Chief John Drake said in a Friday night news conference that officers found a tissue that could be human remains near the explosion that they were preparing to examine. He said police had not identified a suspect or motive. The department released a photo of the RV, which they said arrived on the street at 1:22 a.m. Friday. Mayor John Cooper said at least 41 businesses were damaged, adding that “there will be others as we see the full extent of this.” He said the city would focus on rebuilding but cautioned that it “will be some time before 2nd Avenue is back to normal.” In his letter to Trump, Lee noted that many of the buildings rocked by the blast were historic and needed to be assessed by an engineer to make sure they are structurally sound. As business owners and residents started to take stock of the damage Saturday, a city non-emergency number for people in the affected area remained out of service. “We are aware property owners/residents are experiencing difficulties, and are working to resolve them as soon as possible,” Cooper tweeted. “Please know the explosion impact area is still a federal investigation zone.” Tennessee has been battered by disasters in the past year that have strained the state’s emergency resources. In March, a series of tornadoes swept through the Nashville area, killing more than two dozen people and demolishing entire neighborhoods in the deadliest storms the state has experienced in nearly a decade. The state is also grappling with the coronavirus, which has killed more than 6,400 residents and sickened more than 546,000 since the beginning of the pandemic. Infections and deaths have spiked to record levels in Tennessee over the past two months, according to The Washington Post’s data analysis, mirroring the cold weather surge in cases nationwide.