Nashville Police Department Officer Tyler Luellen was the first to arrive on Second Avenue North on Christmas morning to a gun call.
When he arrived, he did not hear a shot. While he was investigating, Officer Brenna Hosey arrived to back him up.
“As soon as he got out of the car, almost immediately, the caravan started making an announcement,” Luellen, a three-year veteran of the Nashville police force, told reporters Sunday.
“Somewhere in the style, don’t exactly quote me, but, ‘There is a large bomb inside this vehicle. Its main purpose is to evacuate.’
“I wasn’t really sure what I heard so I looked at Officer Hosey just to verify we heard the same thing,” he said. “And then it started again.”
Not long after, that motorhome would explode, knocking Luellen down, damaging dozens of businesses and injuring three people, but not before Nashville officers went door-to-door to get residents of the nearby downtown out of harm’s way.
Authorities blamed Luellen, Hosey and four other Nashville officers for the fact that more people were not injured or killed in the blast. In addition to Luellen and Hosey, they have been identified as Officer Amanda Topping, Officer James Wells, Officer Michael Sipos, and Sgt. Timothy Miller.
At a press conference, five of those six officers gave first-hand accounts of that morning, what they saw and what they experienced, from the eerie messages carried by VR and their efforts to save lives, to the impact of the explosion and the fears for his fellow officers.
“This will unite us forever, for the rest of life,” Wells said.
‘We are moving as fast as we can’
After the message from the RV began playing, Luellen said he notified Sgt. Miller, who said to get everyone out of there. Luellen requested all available units.
“From the tone of his voice, we knew he was serious,” said Wells, who was with Topping.
“We got there as fast as we could, not knowing that the RV was the vehicle in question,” he said. “At that moment, we actually stopped in front of him.”
When officers arrived at the scene and waited for the bomb squad to arrive, Sipos and Hosey entered an apartment building and began knocking on doors.
Miller also arrived and told officers to move their vehicles to a more strategic position before joining the others to go door to door. Meanwhile, Topping remained on the street to keep pedestrians out.
“Between all the other officers knocking on the doors and I think we made contact with six or seven families,” Sipos said.
Soon, the message from the RV changed to a countdown, announcing that the vehicle would detonate.
“At this point is when we hear the announcement of 14 minutes until detonation,” Hosey said, “so we are moving as fast as we can.”
After clearing the first building, officers began heading south, Sipos said. They reached another apartment building, but did not make contact with anyone inside.
Luellen informed them that once again, the RV message had changed and now a song was playing. He said an ATF agent later helped him identify it as “Downtown” by Petula Clark.
Soon, it changed again, officials said. The detonation was three minutes away.
The motorhome had all windows covered, said Luellen, who looked outside for a license plate but found none. At one point, Wells said he saw a camera on the RV’s rear view mirror.
“It felt like whoever was behind was watching,” he said.
“It felt strange to me. All the police jargon you hear about the senses of spiders, about the spiky hair at the back of your neck.
“All that went through my body.”
Wells returned to his vehicle to obtain heavy plates for additional protection.
He started walking back to the motorhome, he said, when “I literally heard God tell me to turn around and go see Topping.”
Topping was also walking towards the others, but he said something told him to change direction and walk towards Wells.
Then he said, “I just saw the biggest flames I’ve ever seen, the biggest explosion. I just saw orange and … I felt the heat, the wave.”
“I will never forget that the windows were broken after the explosion around me,” he said. “It looked like a great prop from a movie scene, all the glass was breaking at the same time.”
Luellen, who had just told a man walking his dog to be safe, said the blast knocked him to the ground. Sipos, who was removing equipment from his patrol, was thrown into his trunk. Hosey lunged forward, but caught himself.
Topping ran straight to Wells. They grabbed each other and ducked toward a door for safety.
“I was so scared that I just lost all my details,” she said.
‘Christmas will never be the same again’
They were all fine, although Wells suffered a temporary hearing loss in one of his ears, he said. Paramedics wanted to take him to hospital, but when he heard that three people were injured, he said, he told them to take the injured.
But there was still work to be done.
Meanwhile, Luellen checked the man with his dog, before checking on his fellow officers and running into the rubble. He found four more people exiting a building that officers were unable to contact initially and told them to leave the area.
“I was just trying to make sure all of our people were okay, and then I went from there,” Hosey said. He focused his attention on keeping anyone safe who had not left the blast area or returned.
“We only spent time keeping residents who had left, as well as pedestrians … keeping them out of the area,” Sipos said.
But after his experience, Wells said he feels lucky to be alive, but also inextricably linked to his colleagues.
“The love for them is even greater now,” Wells said of his fellow officers. “Christmas will never be the same for any of us.”