Five of the six Nashville police officers who went knocking door-to-door to evacuate residents moments before an RV detonated in a fiery blast in the downtown area early Christmas Day detailed their account of events in a press conference Sunday, explaining that it would be a holiday they would never forget.
“Christmas will never be the same for any of us,” Officer James Wells, who has been with Metro Nashville Police for 21 months, said at a press conference early Sunday alongside his fellow officers.
Officer Tyler Luellen, who first responded to a “shots fired” call at 178 2nd Ave. North around 5:30 a.m. Friday, said he did not initially think the recreational vehicle was out of place on the street, given it was Christmas morning and people could have been in from out of town visiting family.
After he noticed no evidence of gunfire at the address, which is a liquor store and an apartment complex with several Airbnb units, he and another officer, Brenna Hosey, who arrived second as his backup, both heard a recording from the RV, which had its shades drawn.
It was a female voice announcing that they had 14 minutes until a large bomb would go off and it was their “primary objective” to evacuate. The recording soon changed to a song, which police later identified as “Downtown” by Petula Clark.
“Officers responded to a shots fired call. Unknowing anything else at the time, they began hearing announcements that something was about to detonate coming from an RV,” police Chief John Drake said. “Immediately they didn’t think about their own lives, they didn’t think about protecting themselves, they thought about the citizens of Nashville that protected them. They went about knocking on doors, and had they not made their efforts, we’d be talking about the tragedy of people and lives lost.”
Luellen said he notified Sgt. Timothy Miller, who requested all units available to come out. Miller could not attend the press conference Sunday, but Hosey gave him credit for saving her and Luellen’s lives, as well as their patrol vehicles, by telling them to move their vehicles out of the intersection and away from the RV and potential blast radius. They parked their vehicles to block off street access before continuing efforts to evacuate the surrounding buildings.
Working with dispatch to obtain building access codes, Luellen, Hosey and the third officer who arrived at the scene, Michael Sipos, went knocking on doors telling people they needed to evacuate, using the side of the building opposite the street where the RV was parked. Hosey said she reached one woman who hurriedly got together a stroller and moved four young children out of the building.
Luellen said he warned a man outside with his dog to clear the area moments before the blast went off.
The explosion knocked several officers to the ground but none were seriously injured. Wells, who temporarily lost hearing from the blast, recounted how he was headed toward the RV before he “heard the voice of God” and turned around to walk in the direction of Officer Amanda Topping, who was standing alone on the street. The explosion went off shortly after he changed course.
He credited the voice for allowing him to return home safely to see his wife and children for Christmas.
Topping grew emotional recalling how she thought she might have lost her whole unit in the explosion, but one-by-one they responded over the radio and she knew they were at least alive.
Wells said he urged paramedics to treat the three civilians injured first before he would go get checked out at the hospital. According to department policy, he had 24 hours to get medically evaluated, he said.