Nashville explosion: Heroic cops recall harrowing moments before blast

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Five Nashville cops on Sunday recalled the chaos and horror of the RV bomb blast that rocked the city’s downtown Christmas morning — and their frantic efforts to evacuate the area as a blaring audio recording counted down the minutes to hell.

“I just see orange, and then I hear a loud boom,” said Officer James Wells, the cop closest to the RV at the time of the blast, during the press briefing. “It rocked me down hard. I start stumbling and just tell myself to stay on my feet.

“Stay alive.”

Wells was one of the cops who responded to a report of gunfire along a commercial stretch of the Music City, which normally would have been hopping but was largely deserted Christmas morning.

The first cops to arrive at the scene, Officers James Luellen and Brenna Hosey, found no sign of gunplay — but instead soon heard a chilling audio recording emanating from an RV parked outside an AT&T building urging anyone who could hear it to clear the area.

“I wasn’t quite sure what I heard, so I looked at Officer Hosey just to verify we heard the same thing,” Luellen said. “And then [the recording] started over.”

Luellen radioed in to Sgt. Timothy Miller, who ordered Luellen to call for back-up while he made his own way over.

A short distance away, Wells and Officer Amanda Topping were nearing the end of their shifts.

“My wife had just called because it’s towards the end of our shift, so she’s seeing what time I was coming home,” Topping recalled. “I’m like, ‘Well, we’re about to head to this call, it’s a little strange.’ “

Wells and Topping headed over to the scene — initially parking their patrol car right next to the explosive-rigged RV, unaware at the time of its role in the growing chaos.

As the ominous recording played, “Of course we moved, because that seemed ideal,” Topping wryly recalled.

As Miller directed operations, Luellen, Hosey, Wells, Topping and Officer Michael Sipos started evacuating area buildings and blocking off traffic to the area.

All the while, the recording from the RV counted down the minutes to the explosion.

Hosey recalled her and Sipos knocking on one woman’s door in particular.

“Sipos and I knocked on her door, scared the bejesus out of her,” said Hosey. “I told her that there was a threat in the area and we needed her to evacuate. She said, ‘OK, let me get my kids.’

“That kind of just put my heart up in my throat. I don’t have kids, but I have cousins and nieces and people that I love that are small. So I’m thinking maybe one or two kids,” Hosey said. “She ended up having four kids.”

Wells, too, was helping evacuate the area, all the while fearing an ambush.

“I actually told everybody when we came out to make sure we look at the high ground and parking garages, just in case … [for an] active shooter,” he said. “Every time we came out of the building, we made sure that we were looking around and checking high areas, just making sure nobody was peeking around and looking at us.

APTOPIX Nashville Explosion

Emergency personnel work at the scene of an explosion in downtown Nashville, Tenn.

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A vehicle burns near the site of an explosion in the area of Second and Commerce in Nashville

A vehicle burns near the site of an explosion in the area of Second and Commerce in Nashville

A vehicle burns near the site of an explosion in the area of Second and Commerce in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Nashville Explosion

Nashville Explosion

Debris scattered a near the scene of an explosion in downtown Nashville, Tenn.

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Nashville Explosion

Nashville Explosion

Emergency personnel work at the scene of an explosion in downtown Nashville, Tenn.

AP

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Nashville Explosion

Nashville Explosion

Emergency personnel stand near the scene of an explosion in downtown Nashville.

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Damage to surrounding building from a morning explosion in Nashville, TN.

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“I’m preparing for a shooutout.”

With 3 minutes left in the countdown —which was eerily punctuated on the recording by the classic Petula Clark pop song “Downtown” — Wells returned to his car to put on heavier protective gear.

“I told them I was going to go back to my car and get my [protective] heavy plates, just mentally getting prepared for whatever was about to happen,” he said.

“I’m starting to go back toward Luellen and Hosey, and as I’m getting ready to walk toward them, back toward the RV … I literally hear God telling me to turn around and go check on Topping, who was by herself down on Broadway,” he said, pausing to take a deep breath.

“As I turn around, for me it felt like I only took three steps, and then the music stopped.”

That’s when the explosion rocked downtown Nashville.

“I just saw the biggest flames I’ve ever seen, the biggest explosion. I just saw orange,” Topping said. “I saw [Wells] stumble, and I felt [the blast]. I felt the heat, the wave. I don’t know how I kept my footing, but I kind of blanked, and I just lost it.”

Topping “took off in a sprint” toward her partner, and they grabbed each other and dove for shelter against a nearby building.

“I’ve never grabbed somebody so hard in my life,” Topping said. “I grabbed him, he grabbed me, and we just ducked into a doorway because we didn’t know what was coming afterwards. I’ll never forget the window-shattering after the blast, all around me.”

Topping radioed for medics, not knowing the condition of her other four fellow cops.

“I was so scared that I’d just lost my entire detail because I didn’t know where they were,” recalled Topping, her voice strained with emotion.

Luellen was directing a dogwalker to get back inside and evacuate his family when the bomb went off.

“I saw that gentleman. Gut instinct told me, ‘Go get him,’ ” said Luellen. “I did that, and I’m just grateful that none of the shrapnel or anything like that hit me, him. I’m a big dog lover, so [I’m glad] his dog [survived], too.”

Three people suffered minor injuries in the explosion.

Suspected human remains have been found among the wreckage, and investigators are working to trace those to the man believed to be the RV’s owner, Anthony Quinn Warner. They believe the attack may have been a suicide bombing.

Authorities have yet to officially identify a motive in the bombing but are reportedly probing the possibility that Warner, a 63-year-old local computer expert, was attempting to cripple local AT&T service over fears about 5G technology being used by the government to spy on people.

Wells voiced gratitude that he lived to tell the harrowing tale.

“It was God,” he said, of the force that made him think twice about walking closer to the RV in the seconds before the explosion. “I truly believe that that’s what guided me in that sense, because I was literally getting ready to walk back toward that RV. … That’s what saved my life.

“That’s what got me to see my kids and my wife on Christmas, and ‘good to see you’ has a completely different meaning for me now.”

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