In Nashville, Second Avenue resident heard warnings: “Don’t come near this vehicle. It has a bomb.”

By: - December 26, 2020 10:00 pm
a couple of photos of damage from explosives on Downtown Nashville's Second Avenue Saturday morning. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Photojournalist John Partipilo managed to get a couple of photos of damage from explosives on Downtown Nashville’s Second Avenue Saturday morning. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Kim Madlom remembers fragments of the messages broadcast by the digital-sounding female voice blasting from an RV across the street from her apartment in the early hours of Christmas Day.

“Your priority now is to evacuate.” “Don’t come near this vehicle.” “It has a bomb.”

Madlom, 59, and her partner, Betsy Williams, 64, had been sound asleep in their third-floor apartment on Second Avenue when they were first awakened by a volley of what sounded like gunfire between 5 and 5:30 a.m.

Madlom went back to sleep. The couple have lived in the building for 15 years and have heard commotions before. They thought it might be a car backfiring, she said.

A shot of damage on Second Avenue shortly after the Friday morning explosion. (Photo: Alex Kent)

“Then I heard it again,” she said. “It was the loudest gunfire I’ve ever heard.”

Peeking outside her window, Madlom saw a light-colored RV across the street from her building, “but I thought nothing of it,” she said. Parking rules were rarely enforced over the holidays, and she had seen stranger sights on Second Avenue in the heart of Nashville’s often raucous tourist district. Graham Phillips, Williams’ adult son, was visiting for the holidays, staying in the empty short-term rental apartment next door. He told Madlom he was concerned about the RV.

Madlom called 911 at about 5:31 or 5:32 a.m. to report the gunfire, then got dressed to go downstairs

That’s when she heard the message about the bomb broadcast from the RV parked directly across the street. She called 911 for a second time to report what she was hearing.

Longtime Second Avenue resident Kim Madlom called 911 to report gunshots. Then, her visiting son told her he was concerned about the RV parked across the street.

One officer was already there, walking around the RV, Madlom said. Further down the street, she saw officers and police car lights at the intersection of Church and Second Avenue and at Commerce Street and Second Avenue.

“Then I heard it say 15 minutes, then 14 minutes til the bomb would go off,” Madlom said. “I called 911 again in a panic then ran upstairs. We were running around. Betsy put her shoes on, threw a coat over her pajamas and grabbed the cat.”

The 911 operator told Madlom that police were there, knocking on doors to tell people to evacuate.

The family roused Williams’ 85-year-old sister, who was visiting for the holidays, threw a coat on her and shuffled her out in her slippers. They took the elevator down to the basement to exit towards the back of the building. They feared the recording could be trying to lure them out onto Second Avenue for an ambush, Madlom said.

They made their way to their parking garage near the Hard Rock Café. Inside the garage were two other groups evacuating: a man hurriedly installing a baby seat into a car; a couple with a dog.

Detail of damage to the AT&T building at 166 Second Ave., N. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The four of them — and Mavis, the cat, in her carrier —drove across the Cumberland River to the Nissan Stadium parking lot, where they had a clear view of the back of their building.

It wasn’t until they had sat for 20 minutes wondering if it were “some sick joke” that they decided to drive back.  They saw the explosion just as they were approaching Broadway on Second Avenue from the Korean Veterans Memorial Bridge.

“I swear you’d think four people and a cat inside a car would scream at that,” she said. “But all we could say was ‘oh, my God.’”

In the minutes after the bomb detonated, before downtown was swarming with police and emergency vehicles, Madlom and her family were able to drive up First Avenue on the backside of their apartment building.

All of the windows of the building were smashed, including the windows to Laser Quest, on the first floor, which had buckled, Madlom said. The building also houses the Melting Pot restaurant and Rodizio Grill Brazilian Steakhouse.

Madlom and Williams through their company, Music City Suites, manage all the residential units in the building, which include nine short-term rental units and one long-term tenant, who was away for the holidays.  No one besides Madlom and her family were in the building at the time, she said.

Madlom and her family are now staying in a hotel, fielding calls from concerned friends and family, while checking on insurance, finding a storage facility in case they can retrieve their possessions and tending to other logistics. They don’t know when they will be allowed back to their apartment. They have been in touch with the Mayor’s office and have been interviewed by officers with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Madlom said they expect the worst. Between the bomb blast and sprinkler system – the building has sprinklers in the apartments as well as the hallways — she assumes many of their possessions are forever lost.

Metro Nashville Mayor John Cooper speaks with a reporter after a press conference Saturday during which Cooper, FBI Agent in Charge Doug Korneski, Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake and U.S. Attorney for the Middle district of Tennessee Don Cochran gave updates on Friday’s RV bombing on Second Avenue in Downtown Nashville. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Looking back, Madlom says she thinks the sound of gunfire they heard may have been a recording.

“In retrospect, we feel like it was recorded. The only reason we feel that way is that it sounded the same each time,” she said. “There were three different volleys and they seemed exactly the same.”

That sound of gunfire likely saved their lives. Madlom and Williams sleep with a sound machine on, with the sound of crickets blocking out what can be a noisy tourist strip outside their bedroom window. She doesn’t think they would have heard the warnings broadcast from the RV in their apartment.

“I’m thinking it’s such a horrible thing for someone to do,” Madlom said. “I also have an uncomfortable feeling of gratitude that they warned us, and they warned us multiple times. I’m angry, yet I’m having this feeling of ‘thank you’ for not wanting to kill us.”

For Madlom and Williams the bombing marks a dark end to a rough year, but one that was just starting to look up by Christmas.

The couples’ short term rental business has plummeted during the pandemic. But bookings were starting to fill up in February and March.

“The pandemic already shut us down,” Madlom said. “Now we’ve probably lost our home and our business too.”

Featured photo: Photojournalist John Partipilo managed to get a couple of photos of damage from explosives on Downtown Nashville’s Second Avenue Saturday morning. 

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.