NASHVILLE — With the authorities in Nashville now confident they know who set off a powerful explosion in downtown on Christmas morning, their attention on Monday turned to answering what may prove a far more difficult question: Why?
Investigators say Anthony Quinn Warner, 63, rigged his R.V. with explosives and parked it in a popular entertainment district, a place typically full of tourists and shoppers. But he also played a message warning people of an imminent explosion, which detonated at 6:30 a.m. on a holiday, a time when the area was basically deserted.
Body camera footage from one police officer at the scene captured the force of the blast and the confusion that followed.
The explosion killed Mr. Warner, injured three others and caused structural damage to at least 41 buildings in a historic part of downtown Nashville. One building collapsed from the damage, and some residents were displaced by the blast and had to stay in hotels or with friends. But officials say the loss of life could have been far greater had the explosion occurred at a different time.
“It does appear that the intent was more destruction than death,” David Rausch, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said in an interview on Monday on the “Today” show.
In a news conference on Monday, Mr. Rausch said investigators were interviewing relatives and neighbors of Mr. Warner, including his mother.
“Through all of that, we hope to get an answer,” Mr. Rausch said on the “Today” show, noting that the task was made far more difficult without the chance to speak with Mr. Warner.
“We don’t know for sure that we’ll ever get to the complete answer because obviously that individual is no longer with us,” he said.
The body camera footage shows several officers walking past the parked R.V. at 6:25 a.m. as a recording of a woman’s voice bellowed monotone warnings to “evacuate now” and “stay clear from the vehicle.”
One officer said it seemed like something out of a movie.
“Like ‘The Purge’?” another officer responded.
The officer wearing the body camera then turned a corner and walked to a police cruiser. Shortly after, the R.V. exploded, a deafening eruption that ignited car alarms and scattered debris across the street. Broken glass glittered like stars on the pavement. Black smoke billowed toward the blue dusk sky.
Seconds after the explosion, a bystander carried a woman, still wearing her pajamas, to a nearby intersection. Officers asked if they were OK and directed them away from the scene. Minutes later, a small crowd formed around the block. An officer asked them to evacuate as one asked if he knew what happened.
“Not exactly,” the officer said.
Before the explosion, Mr. Warner had not been on law enforcement’s radar, Mr. Rausch said. The one arrest in his criminal record was for marijuana possession in 1978, when he was 21.
This meant that tips from members of the public were “absolutely key” in identifying Mr. Warner as the suspect, Mr. Rausch said. From there, investigators were able to find images on Google Earth that showed an R.V. in his driveway, which led them to his home and to eventually comparing DNA from a hat and a pair of gloves that belonged to him.
“We are very proud of the work that we’ve done by our team to make that match so quickly,” Mr. Rausch said.
Investigators were still working to identify what materials Mr. Warner used to make the bomb, he added. Mr. Rausch and the Justice Department both said they could not speak to whether his decision to park outside an AT&T building was intentional or coincidental.
On the body camera footage, one police officer noted that the R.V. was parked next to a building that houses phone lines for the region. “Makes sense,” another officer replied. “Good spot to put a bomb.”
The explosion damaged the AT&T building, causing widespread service outages for several days and affecting parts of Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. Communication was also hindered in 20 or more 911 call centers, according to Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee.
When Bryan Stephens, who lives in downtown Nashville, tried to call his parents and brother on Christmas morning, his cellphone did not work. His AT&T cable television service was also down. It took two days for the service to be restored.
“It was bad,” he said. “It just goes to show we rely on this technology way too much.”
AT&T was still working to return service to all its customers on Monday, but the majority of services had been restored, the company said in a statement.
From the beginning, officials have grappled with whether to call the explosion an act of terrorism. On Friday, in the hours after the blast, aides to Mayor John Cooper consulted with the city’s legal director, Robert Cooper, a former state attorney general, about whether to use the term before determining that the blast had not met the legal definition, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Ed Yarborough, a former United States attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, agreed with the assessment.
“Terrorism as we define it in the modern age involves the killing of innocent citizens to put fear into the general population for political purposes or religious or whatever,” said Mr. Yarborough, who is now in private practice in Nashville. “The guy obviously went out of his way to try to avoid the killing of innocent people, so that’s the opposite of what a terrorist typically does.”
By late Monday morning, some sense of normalcy had returned to downtown. The area that had been blocked off by investigators was narrowed, and light traffic and tourists returned to nearby streets, an encouraging sign for businesses already hurting because of the coronavirus pandemic.
About 60 patrons had already streamed into Honky Tonk Central, where a cover of “There’s Your Trouble” by the Chicks competed with the noise of construction trucks rumbling down the street.
“People are ready to get out of their hotel room,” the bar’s manager, Jay Emery, said. “We opened at 11, and a quarter after 11 the entire first floor is full.”
A family of eight from Jacksonville and Melbourne, Fla., said the explosion would not hamper their vacation, other than they might need to change lunch reservations. They still planned to visit the Johnny Cash Museum and Gaylord Opryland Resort.
“This was not going to stop us,” said Shirley Turner of Jacksonville.
Jamie McGee reported from Nashville, and Lucy Tompkins from Bozeman, Mont. Steve Cavendish contributed reporting from Nashville, and Will Wright from Jersey City, N.J.