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‘Like A Ghost Town’: Capito Recalls D.C. On 9/11

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., speaks during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Wednesday, June 9, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Al Drago/Pool via AP)

WHEELING — The quiet of the Washington D.C. streets is one of the things Sen. Shelley Moore Capito remembers most about the day of Sept. 11, 2001.

Capito, R-W.Va., was a freshman member of the U.S. House of Representatives on the day of the attacks. What began as a normal day of meeting with constituents quickly transformed into something she had never before experienced. That was cemented when she left her office that day to walk to the Capitol Police headquarters to gather some more information about what was happening.

D.C. is a busy city, especially when Congress is in session. Yet the bustle and commotion was replaced that day with near silence.

“There were no cars,” she said. “The Capitol Police were lining up every 15 to 20 feet to make sure no one could enter the Capitol Hill space. It was like a ghost town. And it was a very eerie feeling.”

That feeling continued later that night when Capito laid down to sleep. She could hear the whirring of helicopters and see their spotlights and the lights of emergency vehicles throughout the nation’s capital, on alert for any possible aftershocks.

Capito is the lone member of West Virginia’s current congressional delegation who was in that delegation on Sept. 11, 2001. And she has been a member ever since, moving from the house to the U.S. Senate in 2015. In that time, she has seen how Washington D.C. has evolved since the attacks.

The most significant evolution has been in security. Public access into federal buildings has been totally curtailed. Barriers have been put up to make sure people and vehicles can’t get too close. All of the checkpoints getting in and out of the buildings have been strengthened. The simple act of traveling has changed with the creation of the Transportation Security Administration.

Things were evolving in D.C. in real time after the attacks. Capito remembers that, for the most part, members of Congress learned about developments surrounding the attacks — who attacked and why — at the same time as the general public. Military intelligence has became even more important after that, and that’s one reason, she said, why she found the United States’ recent withdrawal from Afghanistan so disheartening.

“We’re leaving a place that foments terrorism and we don’t have the intelligence on the ground to be able to detect it,” she said. “And that was one of the things the 9/11 commission came forward with. There were silos in our intelligence and they weren’t talking to one another. So we can’t repeat the mistakes of the past.”

In the days following the attacks, Capito said she found her resolve bolstered. She felt she needed to stand strong for others, listen to experts and help devise ways to protect the country. That came when she visited the Pentagon on Sept. 12, still able to smell the burning fuel from where the plane crashed into the building. It came when she joined Congress in New York City at ground zero a couple of weeks later. She was inspired by the first responders and West Virginians who continued to help at the site.

It started later on the day of Sept. 11, when she joined other members of Congress on the Capitol steps as a way to show the world that the United States was unbowed.

“We just sort of spontaneously started singing ‘God Bless America,'” she said. “It was a really powerful moment, I think, for all of us there.

“I’ll admit that I had a bit of hesitancy to go to the Capitol, simply because it was a target. I’m thinking, are we setting ourselves up here? But it became clear this is what I should do and want to do. I was so glad I did that.”

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