NASHVILLE – With authorities in Nashville now convinced as to who set off a powerful explosion in the city center on Christmas morning, their attention turned Monday to the answer to what could prove to be a much more difficult question: Why?
Investigators say Anthony Quinn Warner, 63, rigged his camper van with explosives and parked it in a popular entertainment district, a place usually packed with tourists and shoppers. But he also broadcast a message warning people of an impending explosion, which exploded at 6.30am on a public holiday, at a time when the area was virtually deserted.
The explosion killed Mr. Warner, injured three others and caused structural damage to at least 41 buildings in a historic downtown Nashville neighborhood. A building collapsed due to the damage and some residents were displaced by the explosion and had to stay in hotels or with friends. But officials say the loss of life could have been much greater if the explosion had occurred at another time.
“It seems the intention 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 press conference on Monday, Mr Rausch said investigators were questioning relatives and neighbors of Mr Warner, including his mother.
“With all of this we hope to get a response,” Mr. Rausch said on the “Today” show, noting that the task was much more difficult without the ability to speak directly with Mr. Warner.
“We don’t know for sure that we’ll ever get to the full answer because obviously that person is no longer with us,” he said.
Prior to the Christmas Day explosion, Mr Warner was not on law enforcement radar, Mr Rausch said. The only arrest in his criminal record was for possession of marijuana in 1978, when he was 21.
And that meant advice from members of the public was “absolutely essential” in identifying Mr Warner as a suspect, Mr Rausch said. From there, investigators were able to find images on Google Earth showing an RV in his driveway, which led them to his home and eventually compared the DNA of a hat and a pair of gloves that belonged to him. .
“We are very proud of the work that our team has done to make this game so quickly,” said Rausch.
Investigators were still working to identify the materials Mr Warner used to make the bomb, he added. Both Mr Rausch and the Justice Department said they couldn’t tell whether his decision to park outside an AT&T building was intentional or accidental.
From the start, officials have questioned whether to call the explosion an act of terrorism. In the hours following the blast, on Friday, aides to Mayor John Cooper consulted with city legal director Robert Cooper, a former state attorney general, on whether to use the term before determining that the explosion did not meet the legal definition, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Ed Yarborough, a former US attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, concurred with the assessment.
“Terrorism as we define it in the modern age involves the murder of innocent citizens to instill fear in the general population for political or religious or other purposes,” said Mr Yarborough, who now practices in the private sector. in Nashville. “The guy obviously went out of his way to avoid killing innocent people, so that’s the opposite of what a terrorist usually does.”
By the end of Monday morning, a sense of normalcy had returned to downtown. The area that had been blocked off by investigators has been narrowed and light traffic and tourists have returned to nearby streets, an encouraging sign for businesses already struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic.
About 60 customers had already flocked to Honky Tonk Central, where a cover of “There Your Trouble” by The Chicks competed with the sound of construction trucks rumbling in the street.
“People are ready to come out of their hotel rooms,” bar manager Jay Emery said. “We opened at a quarter past 11 after 11, the whole first floor is full.”
And a family of eight from Jacksonville and Melbourne, Fla., Said the blast wouldn’t hamper their vacation, other than they might need to change lunch reservations. They were still planning to visit the Johnny Cash Museum and the Gaylord Opryland Resort.
“It wasn’t going to stop us,” said Shirley Turner of Jacksonville.
Jamie McGee reported from Nashville, and Lucy tompkins de Bozeman, Mont. Steve cavendish contribution to reports.