NORMAN — Craig Jones of Norman spent much of last week at the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C. — the same place he was in 10 years ago today when an airliner crashed into the Pentagon during the 9/11 attacks.
“Yeah, that is rather interesting,” Jones said of the coincidence from his hotel room before returning Thursday.
Jones is president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association. He was in Washington last week, as he was on Sept. 11, 2001, for a meeting of state hospital association administrators from around the country.
“When that plane hit the Pentagon, it was like the entire hotel staff had vanished,” Jones recalled. “That’s when it was obvious that we were not going to meet anymore.”
Stuck in D.C.
About a dozen people from the Norman Chamber of Commerce also were in the nation’s capital that day including Gary Clinton, the chamber’s president-elect at the time.
Clinton said a chamber group goes to Washington every year to lobby for Norman business and the University of Oklahoma. The focus that day was to get more funding for what would become the National Weather Center.
“That afternoon, everything shut down and even the day next,” Clinton said. “Buses don’t run, trains don’t run, and you look up Pennsylvania Avenue and it’s dead — not a person on the street, not a car, not a bus; it was really eerie.”
Clinton said on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, his wife, Pam, was meeting a college friend for breakfast at a hotel near the White House. He was with her when he saw television coverage of the first jet crashing into the World Trade Center.
He said he initially thought a private plane was involved because it looked so small compared to the massive building.
Clinton and other Norman chamber officers at the time including Pat Mayes and Jim Wade, Executive Director Anna-Mary Suggs, and OU Dean John Snow, caught a taxi nonetheless for a meeting with an Oklahoma City congressman.
“We were headed to Ernest Istook’s office and there was a wreck on the Memorial Bridge heading to the Pentagon,” Clinton said. “We thought it must have been a tanker because there was a tremendous amount of smoke. We arrived and everybody’s starting to realize something is going on.”
The Norman group managed to meet with Istook, but not for long.
Clinton said after two to three minutes, Istook canceled the rest of their appointment to attend an emergency meeting.
As the day’s events began to sink in, Clinton noticed people leaving government buildings and was amazed by how calm everyone seemed to be. It also occurred to the group that the White House could still be an attack target.
“We walked back to the hotel, two miles, maybe three,” Clinton said. “Later on, they put barricades outside our hotel leading up to the White House and (stationed) guys carrying machine guns. It was weird; you just don’t see that.
“On our way back,” he continued, “we saw a lot of these black SUVs with black windows and blue lights, and they were zooming.”
Back at their hotel, the group tried in vain to book flights back home. Some wound up chartering a bus; the Clintons stayed two days until Thursday when they could rent a car from Dulles airport and drive back.
They arrived back in Norman on Saturday.
“The one thing we’ll always remember is the empty streets and the calm of the people,” Clinton said. “Even driving home, everybody was nice; everybody was good and we saw people standing on overpasses waving a flag.”
Struggle to get home
Jones, the Oklahoma Hospital Association president, was not part of the Norman chamber group though he had experiences similar to Clinton’s — believing at first that a small plane hit a tower in a random, tragic accident, the shock of seeing the streets of Washington becoming deserted, the scramble to get home.
“A group of us actually contemplated buying a car somehow between us and driving west,” Jones said. “There was a colleague from Harrisburg, Pa., and I had family in the Pittsburgh area, so we drove to Harrisburg and then I got another ride to Pittsburgh.
But even outside of Washington, Jones continued to see reminders of the Sept. 11 attacks.
On the road between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, they went through a stretch that had highway patrol officers at entrances of each tunnel, which seemed odd.
It turned out they passed within about 20 miles of Shanksville, the town nearest the United Flight 93 crash site.
And once Jones finally boarded a plane in Pittsburgh, the commercial jet had only three passengers.
“Normally there will be more than 100 people,” Jones said. “The demand just went to zero. People might have been wondering if it was safe to fly.”
Back on Sept. 11, Jones said he, for the most part, did not feel he was in imminent danger despite his hotel’s proximity to the White House and rumors of it being targeted for attack.
“The first time I thought of that was when the hotel staff disappeared, just vanished, after the plane hit the Pentagon,” Jones said. “That was probably the only time I thought of that.
“I’ll never forget walking in front of the Mayflower (hotel) on Connecticut Avenue, which is one busy street, and there wasn’t a car moving on it,” he added. “It was like a ghost street.”
Jones also recalled a Boston newspaper reporter doing a “man on the street” interview with him — and then being asked about comparisons to the Murrah building bombing once the reporter learned Jones was from Oklahoma.
Jones also spoke of the Iranian taxi driver who drove 2 1/2 hours to get a hospital association colleague from Tennessee to a rental car facility, despite the driver having a wife who was eight months pregnant and wanted her husband home.
“That gentleman was doing everything he could to help me,” Jones said the Tennesseean told him, “yet he will get looked at with suspicion.”
Jones has seen firsthand the tightening of security at buildings and landmarks in Washington since the Sept. 11 attacks. He brought each of his three children to D.C. when they turned 13 to show them around, and it was a different tour for his youngest son who arrived after 2001.
“You just notice the things we couldn’t get in as readily to see as before— the barriers and protocol that are now there,” he said. “Things have certainly changed.”
James S. Tyree 366-3541 firstname.lastname@example.org