Jimmy Clayton, Scott Coopwood and William LaForge were all in Washington D.C. on the morning of September 11, 2001. Even though LaForge was living there at the time, and Clayton and Coopwood were just visiting, their paths would all cross many years later when LaForge returned to his hometown in Cleveland to lead his alma mater, Delta State University. They all share a love for the Delta, but they also share a bond few have. All three were just a few of the civilians that remained in a Capitol that had virtually been abandoned the afternoon of 9/11.
Four passenger jets were hijacked on the morning of September 11, 2001.
The targets for those four airliners were far from random.
Two of the hijackers navigated the planes under their forced control into America’s commercial center at the World Trade Center complex in New York City.
A third plane struck the center for America’s military command at the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and a fourth plane, which was crashed into a field near Shanksville, Penn. that morning, was likely headed for the heart of the country’s political power at the Capitol building in D.C.
While D.C. may not be a center of trade, commercial activity is bound by the laws and regulations passed in the nation’s capital.
By the evening of 9/11, few people could be found walking the eerily deserted streets of the normally bustling city.
Three men who now live within 30 miles of each other here in the Delta were among those few. These are their stories.
Longtime Planters Bank executive Jimmy Clayton had made the annual trip to Washington D.C. for a few days of regulatory meetings with the Mississippi Banker’s Association.
The fall of 2001 was no different than any other year.
On the plane ride from Memphis to D.C., Clayton and some other Delta bankers noticed a familiar face on the plane.
It was Scott Coopwood, who was destined for the same city, only he was there to meet with the congressional delegation about flood control in the Delta.
Coopwood had an empty seat on his row, so he invited Clayton to sit next to him.
After the uneventful flight, Coopwood and the bankers separated. They figured they would next see each other back in Mississippi.
Clayton said most of the bankers were staying in the Madison Hotel, just a few blocks from the White House, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Washington Post, among other famous buildings and landmarks.
Clayton’s daughter, Rebecca (Barrier), had worked for the Library of Congress the previous summer, and she had sent a gift with her dad to give to her former co-workers.
He was in meetings early that morning, but he had planned to slip out.
“I was going to leave there a little early, walk back to the hotel and get the gift and go visit with these people who Rebecca had worked for,” Clayton said.
The chairman of the FDIC, Clayton said, was delivering some informal remarks to the bankers, per usual.
“Late in his remarks, you start to see these people moving around, and somebody comes over and whispers in his ear,” Clayton said. “All of a sudden, he says, ‘Something has come up, and I’m going to need to adjourn our meeting a little early.’”
No one in the room had heard the sound of American Airlines Flight 77 crashing into the side of the Pentagon.
Clayton left many of his colleagues in the room and decided to head back to his hotel to retrieve that gift.
“When I get out on the street and I see all that, I start walking up to head back to the hotel,” he said. “I was going to try and get a cab, but there are no cabs, and people are pouring out of all of these buildings, everywhere. It’s just chaos. People are lining the streets, and I’m walking as fast as I can to get back to the hotel.”
There were no smartphones in 2001, but many in the city had flip phones.
“Everybody was trying to use their cellphones I noticed,” Clayton said. “From what I understood, you couldn’t get through to anybody because I guess it jammed the system.”
Clayton said there were thousands of people pouring out of the buildings, many of them government structures, and he knew something was up.
“About a block from the hotel, I finally stopped this lady, and I said, ‘Do you have any idea what’s going on?’” he said. “By then I knew something wasn’t right. And she said, ‘There’s been a bombing. The Trade Center’s been attacked and bombed, and there’s been a plane that was crashed into the Pentagon.’”
Clayton finally returned to the Madison, and as he watched television and began to get a clear idea of what had happened that morning, his thoughts would eventually turn toward getting home.
“By about mid-afternoon, somebody threw out the idea of what about us trying to rent a bus to get back,” Clayton said. “They contacted a travel agent in Jackson who did work for the (Mississippi Bankers) Association, and luckily, she found a bus that could bring us all back that would leave Washington about 6 o’clock that afternoon… Then you had the decision to make whether you were going to go home on the bus or stay and maybe catch a plane back. We had about four or five that said, ‘We’ll get out in the next day or two.’”
Meanwhile, the streets of Washington D.C. had gone from a chaotic scene with tens of thousands of people walking to almost no one in sight.
“By about 2 in the afternoon, the streets of Washington were deserted,” he said. “They had called the military out. You had jets flying low over Washington. You had helicopters flying low. By that time, you didn’t know what was next or what was going on. It was just strange… We get on the bus at 6 o’clock, and we head out, and I’m telling you, there are no cars anywhere. You’re driving out of Washington, and you don’t see anybody or anything. The streets are clear.”
Scott Coopwood, owner of Coopwood Communications based in Cleveland, parted ways with his Delta friends that September week to meet with multiple politicians, as well as some of the most powerful movers and shakers in Washington politics.
He was getting ready for a meeting on the morning of 9/11 when his wife Cindy called him and told him that a plane had struck one of the twin towers in New York.
“I really didn’t think too much about it,” Coopwood said. “I thought it was a small plane that had lost its way and landed into the side of the tower.”
Like millions of other viewers that morning, he witnessed the second plane crash into the second tower.
Shortly after that, he learned that another plane had hit the Pentagon.
“I looked out my window, and I could see the smoke up in the air, really high, and dark, dark smoke,” he said. “Obviously, we knew something was up.”
Like his plane ride companion Jimmy Clayton, Coopwood watched the streets of D.C. fill, only he was several stories up in his hotel room.
“The rest of that morning was an incredible situation to be in the middle of, because right below my window in my hotel room, I could see thousands of people walking around for the next hour or so,” Coopwood said. “They were all leaving their workplaces and going home I assume. Not long after that, military personnel arrived everywhere. It reminded me of an Ole Miss or a Mississippi State football game, and the moment it’s out, thousands of people take off, and that’s what this was about.”
Coopwood’s wife, who was pregnant at the time, began pleading with him to find a way home to Cleveland.
“I stayed in my room all morning, trying to figure out what to do,” he said.
Around 1 o’clock, he got hungry and decided to go to the ground floor.
“The restaurant was closed in the hotel there, and I was going to go across the street into a little deli shop, and there were three (soldiers) at the door with machine guns. And they said, ‘Sir, if you leave the hotel, we can’t let you back in,’” Coopwood recalled.
He pleaded his case with the soldier and told him he was a long way from home and was hungry.
One of the soldiers pointed toward a sandwich shop down the street and told him to go get some food and come right back.
“He said, ‘I’m going to watch you,’” Coopwood said.
He went into the shop, and it was packed. People were in line, but a lot of them were watching the televisions on the walls.
“I must have been there five or six minutes, and all of the sudden, someone grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me, and it was (one of the soldiers),” he said. “He pulled me to the front of the line, with everybody watching, and he said, ‘Order.’ The person behind the counter sort of looked and didn’t know what to do and said, ‘What do you want?’ I got a sandwich, and he said, ‘Let’s go,’ and we ran back out into the crowd.”
Coopwood went back to his hotel where he would conduct a couple of interviews with Channel 6 back home in the Delta. He talked to several friends in Washington’s political circles, and he stayed in close contact with his wife, who was still urging him to come home.
Around 4 o’clock that afternoon, he got a call from Jimmy Clayton, who happened to have an extra seat to offer on that bus leaving that evening for Mississippi.
“Once I leaked that information to my wife, she pleaded with me, ‘Please take that seat. Please come home,’’ he said.
He talked to a political insider who also advised him to take that seat if he still could.
“About 15 minutes before that bus left, I sprinted down the street, got a cab and ended up at Jimmy’s hotel the moment everyone was loading on the bus,” Coopwood said. The bus left around 6 that evening and passed over the Potomac River as the sun was starting to set on America’s capital city.
“It was a sight to see,” Coopwood said. “The smoke had died down a lot, but it was still rising way high in the sky from the Pentagon.”
Because no one had car chargers for their phones, the bus’s passengers soon lost communication with the outside world.
They rode through the dark hills of Virginia, with no way to know what was happening.
Every now and then, the bus would stop at convenience stores, and they would get the latest information from the clerks who worked behind the counter.
“That’s the only information we could get to figure out what was going on and what had happened,” Coopwood said. “We didn’t know if we were in the middle of a war or what was going to happen the next morning. It was a strange thing to be on that bus all night with no information.”
When they arrived at Memphis International Airport to retrieve their vehicles, the bus was forced to stop well shy of the parking lot. In a matter of hours, air travel as they had known it for many years, had changed.
“We had to deboard way out in front of the airport,” Clayton noted. “They wouldn’t let us get close to it.”
Coopwood and Clayton had not expected to fly side-by-side to D.C. that week, and they certainly had not planned to be together on that long, lonely bus ride home.
Years before he returned to his hometown of Cleveland to serve as president of his alma mater, Delta State University, Bill LaForge was a major player in the world of D.C. politics.
Aside from being an attorney and a registered lobbyist, he had also worked on Capitol Hill, namely as chief of staff for the late Senator Thad Cochran.
By 2001, he was working in a prestigious law firm in downtown Washington D.C.
That day, he and his wife Nancy were all set to fly to Tucson, Arizona for the Federal Bar Association convention.
His wife drove him to the Metro, D.C.’s rail system, and he planned to leave work early that afternoon to make the flight.
At the same time, LaForge’s son Clayton, who was a junior in high school at the time, was serving as a Senate page.
“I got into the train, and 30 minutes later when I came out of the train, the Metro rail, I came up the escalator and there were thousands of people in the street,” he said. “They were talking about WTC. They had both occurred while I was underground. All the panic we saw on television was on display, right there in Farragut Square in downtown Washington, D.C. There was a clear sense of panic, fear and the unknown, what you would expect, particularly being in a large group of people like that.”
Like millions of American’s his heart and mind were with his family, especially his son who was working in what likely had been a targeted building that day.
“All of the parents of about 28 pages from all over the country were notified immediately that their children were okay,” he said. “That was comforting. They were evacuated, literally pushed down the steps in the front of the Capitol, into vans and transported over to the eastern shore of Maryland to a hotel where they stayed.”
LaForge settled into his office that day, and like most of the city, the building was soon vacated.
“Washington became a ghost town, almost instantly,” LaForge said. “Everybody fled the city for fear of something else happening, because it was the government seat.”
LaForge talked to many friends and family members that day, including his daughter Caroline, who was a student at Clemson at the time. She had also served as a page under Cochran.
He talked to people from all over the nation, and they were able to share their feelings about the attacks.
“It was kind of a combination of horror and outrage, but a feeling of vulnerability,” he said. “We’re being attacked, and that’s never happened on our shore, except 1812. And for many days afterwards, that permeated the thoughts and actions of a lot of people coming into Washington.”
Between his many contacts within the government and knowing the city was then protected by the strongest military in the world, LaForge felt comfortable staying in his downtown office, even though most of the other offices were empty.
“I knew at that point that Washington was the safest place in the entire world,” LaForge said. “Nobody was coming into Washington. Any plane that was coming into Washington was going to be shot down, way outside the perimeter. That’s not something I’ve ever talked about, but you understand the role of the military, and I’ve spent a good deal of time in government, on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch before I went into the private sector, I talked to some of my best friends who were in government at the time, and they almost knew instantly how this happened, where this happened. Within a matter of hours, the training of those pilots, the terrorists. That information was known very quickly.”
By the next morning, the role of the Congress was never more important than on that day, and LaForge’s son played a major part in making sure the business of the Senate went as smoothly as possible.
“(The pages) all returned early the next morning to the page school and the dorm where they lived,” LaForge said. “They dressed, and they went to the United States Capitol and helped open the Senate session, very courageously I think.”
His son, LaForge said, would go on to earn a law degree of his own and now works for one of the largest law firms in the country in Latham & Watkins. His daughter, Caroline, is also an attorney.
Both father and son will forever remember the events of that horrific and chaotic morning.
More than the initial chaos, however, LaForge will remember the sound of the silence that consumed much of Washington D.C. that afternoon and evening.