Brian Ericson: When a bomb devastates your hometown on Christmas morning

Against all of 2020’s odds, it was a typical Christmas morning for me. My family woke up at about our usual hour, had our annual Christmas breakfast casserole, opened gifts and cherished the reverence of the holy day. It wasn’t until later that morning that I realized something was amiss, after I received a text message that alerted me to the fact that breaking news was happening in Nashville, just a few minutes down the road from my family’s home on the outskirts of the city.

Much earlier that morning, residents near 2nd Avenue in downtown Nashville were startled awake by the sound of automatic gunfire, which repeated itself at least twice more over the next several minutes. Then came the warnings.

In a scene as disconcerting as anything in fiction, an eerie, computerized voice started emanating from an RV parked there on 2nd Avenue, interrupted dramatically by snippets from Petula Clark’s hit 1964 song “Downtown.” Punctuated by alarm noises that seemed straight out of a dystopian sci-fi movie, it directed everyone nearby to evacuate the area and broadcast a countdown to the detonation of a bomb. (The unsettling message can be heard at the beginning of this video of security camera footage.)

Then the RV exploded, raining destruction on an entire block of historic Nashville buildings. Thankfully, and creditable to the heroic efforts of police officers who responded to the shots of gunfire and successfully evacuated the area, no one besides the suicide bomber was killed, nor did anyone even sustain critical injuries.

Temporary fencing, police tape and emergency vehicles block off a swath of downtown Nashville, from historic Printers Alley down to the Cumberland riverfront, on Dec. 29, 2020.

Brian Ericson, Deseret News

Though I can’t offer eyewitness testimony, I can recount how I felt viewing footage of the aftermath, seeing a familiar street I’ve walked countless times blackened by the blast. To see storefront entrances I’ve crossed through with friends and family simply gone, replaced by rubble, was surreal and scarcely believable.

I’ve line-danced (poorly) at the Wildhorse Saloon, a historic tourist spot I’ve taken many an out-of-town friend to. And I have one or two memories from growing up of eating at Nashville’s Old Spaghetti Factory, where — laugh at me if you must, but I come from frugal Midwestern stock — I felt like royalty as a kid. For Christmas last year, my siblings and I gave our parents a fancy meal at the city’s Melting Pot, a gift they never got to cash in because Nashville was under lockdown for much of 2020. Now all three establishments are gone, their facades blown away by a lone man with a screw loose; the structural integrity of the historic buildings is still being evaluated, but it could be over a year before they reopen.

The bomb shattered windows at the historic Washington Square office building, pictured on Dec. 29, 2020, a few blocks away from the detonation site.

Brian Ericson, Deseret News

It’s been a particularly tough year for my hometown. Back in March, just a week or two before the coronavirus gripped the nation, a pair of tornadoes ripped through the city, killing 25 people and injuring 309. One of those tornadoes became by some metrics the sixth-costliest in U.S. history. In May, after the pandemic was in full swing, Nashville was slammed by a “derecho” that felled trees and damaged buildings all over the metro, leaving 130,000 people without power for several days. Then in June, the mayor and city council approved a massive 34% property tax increase, a blow to families and businesses that were already struggling under the pandemic and the city’s strict lockdown responses to it.

Now, fittingly for 2020, we have a bomb.

To see storefront entrances I’ve crossed through with friends and family simply gone, replaced by rubble, was surreal and scarcely believable.

And yet, Nashville has remained as tough as the year. Through each challenge, something of an unofficial motto has emerged: #NashvilleStrong. With a dogged determination and relentless hope emblematic of the rest of the nation, Nashville has shown what America looks like at her best:

After the tornadoes, the Volunteer State lived up to its name, with hordes of kindhearted folks out on the streets clearing debris and delivering food and supplies to the storm’s victims. After the wind storms, rather than anarchy, people waited their turn at huge intersections with defunct streetlights, and neighbors lent one another backup generators. And now, less than a week after the bomb, the streets of downtown still bustle with residents and tourists, familiar music blaring out of Broadway’s honky-tonks just feet away from police tape reading “Crime Scene — Do Not Cross” that blocks off an entire district of the city.

It’s an extraordinary resilience that the rest of the country can both aspire to but also already embodies. From wildfires in California to the deadly September windstorm right here in Utah, 2020 has shown that as a nation, we’re a tough crew. And if we carry that scrappy hope into the New Year, we have a bright future to look forward to.