NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With the authorities in Nashville now confident they know who set off a powerful explosion in downtown on Christmas morning, their attention turned on Monday to answering what may prove a far more difficult question: Why?
Investigators say Anthony Quinn Warner, 63, rigged his RV with explosives and parked it in a popular entertainment district, a place typically full of tourists and shoppers. But he also played a message warning people of an imminent explosion, which detonated at 6:30 a.m. on a holiday, a time when the area was basically deserted.
The explosion killed Warner, injured three others and caused structural damage to at least 41 buildings in a historic part of downtown Nashville. One building collapsed from the damage, and some residents were displaced by the blast and had to stay in hotels or with friends. But officials say the loss of life could have been far greater, had the explosion occurred at a different time.
“It does appear that the intent was more destruction than death,” David Rausch, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said in an interview Monday on the “Today” show.
At a news conference Monday, Rausch said that investigators were interviewing relatives and neighbors of Warner, including his mother.
“Through all of that, we hope to get an answer,” Rausch said on the “Today” show, noting that the task was made far more difficult without the chance to speak with Warner directly.
“We don’t know for sure that we’ll ever get to the complete answer, because obviously that individual is no longer with us,” he said.
Before the Christmas Day explosion, Warner had not been on law enforcement’s radar, Rausch said. The one arrest in his criminal record was for marijuana possession in 1978, when he was 21 years old.
And this meant that tips from members of the public were “absolutely key” in identifying Warner as the suspect, Rausch said. From there, investigators were able to find images on Google Earth that showed an RV in his driveway, which led them to his home and to eventually comparing DNA from a hat and a pair of gloves that belonged to him.
“We are very proud of the work that we’ve done by our team to make that match so quickly,” Rausch said.
Investigators were still working to identify what materials Warner used to make the bomb, he added. Rausch and the Department of Justice both said they could not speak to whether his decision to park outside an AT&T building was intentional or coincidental.
From the beginning, officials have grappled with whether to call the explosion an act of terrorism. On Friday, in the hours after the blast, aides to Mayor John Cooper consulted with the city’s legal director, Robert Cooper, a former state attorney general, about whether to use the term before determining that the blast had not met the legal definition, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Ed Yarborough, a former U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, agreed with the assessment.
“Terrorism as we define it in the modern age involves the killing of innocent citizens to put fear into the general population for political purposes or religious or whatever,” said Yarborough, who is now in private practice in Nashville. “The guy obviously went out of his way to try to avoid the killing of innocent people, so that’s the opposite of what a terrorist typically does.”
By late Monday morning, some sense of normalcy had returned to downtown. The area that had been blocked off by investigators was narrowed, and light traffic and tourists returned to nearby streets, an encouraging sign for business already hurting because of the coronavirus pandemic.
About 60 patrons had already streamed into Honky Tonk Central, where a cover of “There’s Your Trouble” by The Chicks competed with the noise of construction trucks rumbling down the street.
“People are ready to get out of their hotel room,” the bar’s manager, Jay Emery said. “We opened at 11, and a quarter after 11 the entire first floor is full.”
And a family of eight from Jacksonville and Melbourne, Florida, said the explosion would not hamper their vacation, other than they might need to change lunch reservations. They still planned to visit the Johnny Cash Museum and Gaylord Opryland Resort.
“This was not going to stop us,” said Shirley Turner of Jacksonville.