Sheriff evacuated from Opryland after explosion

Published 10:55 pm Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Alarms began sounding about 8:15 Tuesday night when Pike County Sheriff Russell Thomas and his wife made their way out of the Nashville hotel where they were staying. An explosion had rocked the building.

“My wife and I had come in after dinner. She was reading a book and I was watching a basketball game,” Thomas said. “Then the evacuation started.”

Thomas was in Nashville attending the National Sheriffs Association Convention at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center at the time of a natural gas explosion that caused significant damage to the convention center.

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“When we made it outside, I could smell what I thought was some type of gas,” Thomas recounted. “About 10 fire trucks, a bomb squad and homeland security rolled in almost immediately.”

With more than 2,000 people registered for the convention and federal law enforcement agencies present, early speculation was that the explosion might have been a deliberate terrorist attack, Thomas said.

The Nashville Fire Department responded to the scene and later relayed that the event was caused by a gas leak that was ignited inside a mechanical room on the first floor of the convention center’s Delta Atrium. The blast was so strong, it damaged ceiling tiles on the third floor, the Associated Press reported.

Watching other people respond to an emergency situation wasn’t something Thomas was used to.

“I like to be involved. It was kind of odd being the one on the outside trying to find out what happened,” Thomas said.

Resort staff brought out food and drinks to the displaced hotel guests and bussed them to the Grand Ole Opry with blankets and pillows for the night.

“It was an extremely long night,” Thomas said. “Had it been earlier in the day, it would have been devastating. There would have been a lot of casualties and a lot of injuries.”

Thomas said that the explosion happened in the portion of the convention center where convention classes were being held, and about 1,400 vendors were set up.

There was a meeting where a few law enforcement officers were near the explosion, but they were not injured.

About 5,000 people were guests of the resort Tuesday night and close to 4,500 were there for convention-related reasons, the resort has said. The blast caused about $750,000 dollars in damage, according to the resort.

“The explosion blew out escalators, blew off doors and destroyed the ceiling,” Thomas said. “Helicopters have reported there is a hole in the top of the building. The good Lord was looking over us and the Gaylord Opryland.”