“There were people in the home. But before the explosion they were able to get out,” said Kerry Lee, the sheriff of rural Lincoln County who was outside his nearby home in Panaca when the first blast erupted about 8 p.m. Wednesday.
“It literally took my breath away, the concussion,” Lee told reporters. “I looked up and saw the fireball, grabbed my keys … and heard the second explosion.”
The sheriff said investigators believe they know who the bomber was, and that he knew the family. Lee declined to immediately identify the man or say more about his relationship with the family.
Lee told The Associated Press in a brief telephone interview that investigators were also checking an Arizona address with links to the man.
“I think the threat is over,” Lee said during an afternoon news briefing. “The decedent is probably our suspect. We have to make identifications and look into the background of this gentleman and look at what went into this.”
“This was not an amateur,” the sheriff added. “It’s not some homemade pipe bomb. This was really devastating.”
Lee said all five family members are accounted for, but their house was deemed unsafe as soon as firefighters determined there was no one inside.
A neighbor, Richard Katschke, told The Associated Press he attends a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints stake with the family of five who lived in the house that was decimated.
Joshua Cluff is a former hospital official and Tiffany Cluff is a nurse at Grover C. Dils Medical Center in a neighboring town, Caliente, Katschke said. They have three daughters, ranging in age from about 8 to 12.
“We’re a close community. This kind of thing, it’ll pull this community together,” Katschke said.
Messages left for the parents by The Associated Press weren’t immediately returned.
The blast hurled car parts, building materials and bomb fragments in all directions. Electric lines were severed, and underground water lines broke. Lee said some large pieces landed up to a mile away.
“My neighbor says there’s a 3-foot crater where the car was parked,” Katschke said in a telephone interview. “The car is in pieces around town.”
However, the only person reported to have been hurt was a boy age 6 or 7 who Lee said was riding a bicycle nearby and was struck in the chest by flying debris. He wasn’t seriously injured.
Gov. Brian Sandoval called the blasts a shocking event.
“The sound was just horrendous. It was really quite a force,” said Jeanett McCrosky, who lives about a block away. She said her house shook and a light fixture fell from the ceiling.
Another neighbor, Dave Free, said he had broken windows, car parts in his driveway and shrapnel next to his horse feeder. The animals and his grandchildren, who feed the horses, escaped injury.
“It could have been a real bad deal,” he said.
FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents joined Nevada Department of Public Safety, state fire officials and other investigators at the scene. Most drove a circuitous 2½ hours from Las Vegas, about 120 miles away.
Lee said 30 people were unable to return to their homes Thursday, and four neighboring houses remained evacuated while investigators combed the area just south of Main Street for other explosives and for clues about what led to the bombing.
Authorities pleaded with residents to leave pieces where they landed, until investigators can retrieve them.
“These pieces are very important,” Nevada state public safety Director Jim Wright said. “It’s like putting pieces of a puzzle back together. It’ll take time … to put the pieces together to find out exactly what happened and why.”
Panaca began as a Mormon settlement in 1864, before Nevada became a state. It is now home to about 900 people and Lincoln County High School. It bills itself as a tourism gateway to several state parks.
Lee said his local patrol force of about 11 officers was quickly overwhelmed by 911 calls.
“This isn’t something that happens anywhere, let alone Lincoln County,” he said. “We pride ourselves on our country, quiet atmosphere.\