There are not many moments in a person’s life when they can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing. There are the usual momentous occasions: graduation, wedding day, or the birth of a child, but Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 is seared in our nation’s collective memory.
If you are an American of a certain age you know exactly where you were when you heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center and then the Pentagon and finally an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. We tell ourselves to “Never Forget” that day. Garret M. Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky: an oral history of 9/11 brings vividly to life the peril and shock of the deadliest terror attack in world history through the eyes of ordinary citizens all the way to the closest advisors of The President of the United States.
Graff expertly weaves together a moment by moment compulsively readable oral history of the events of 9/11 as they unfold throughout that fateful day. He carefully moves between the stories of survivors to those of government agencies all who are trying to make sense of the unthinkable in real time. Keeping the pacing of a tautly written thriller Graff brings the reader alongside office workers at both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as well into places like the air traffic control towers which were frantically trying to assist and account for dozens of planes as reports of hijackings flood the airwaves.
The confusion of American Airlines Flight 11 hitting the North Tower quickly turns from the innocent musings of “how could such a freak accident happen on a clear and calm day?” to the utter and absolute shock of a nation as United Airlines Flight 175 hits the South Tower on live TV. Within 20 minutes the realization sets in that these were deliberate acts of terror and it shook our nation to its core. Between moments of feeling the panic and confusion of those who were at work at the Trade Center and frantic early response from the FAA as they realize civilian aircrafts have been weaponized works in tandem to create a propulsive reading experience. Watching history unfold through the eyes of those in the midst of such an unfathomable event is jarring but necessary as we continue to live in the shadow of that profound day.
Heartbreaking yet heroic firsthand accounts from civilians are interspersed with the official responses of city, state, and federal officials. As the day plays out it leads to a more fulsome understanding of events and reactions of elected officials, government bureaucrats, and first responders all who are trying to respond to what was unimaginable at the time. Graff includes fascinating accounts such as our military being in the midst of a nationwide readiness exercise of intercepting an incoming nuclear missile from a hostile foreign adversary complicate calls for backup from the FAA as soldiers are left temporarily confused as to whether the hijackings are happening in “real life” or are part of the prescribed exercise. The reader experiences the surrealness alongside the fighter pilots who were given the order to shoot down any hijacked civilian aircraft who are then left wondering in an immediate and chilling uncertainty of what happened to United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania as reports of its crash are reported. The dramatic tensions aboard Air Force One between the Secret Service’s legal duty to protect the President and then President George W. Bush’s unflinching desire to return to DC amidst the uncertainty of the unfolding events all come to life within the unvarnished pages of The Only Plane in the Sky.
Garrett Graff gives us an important book that presents the abject horrors of September 11th alongside the absolute best in humanity as people care for one another in profound ways. It is an intimate look at not only a devastating piece of American History but a life changing one. As we approach the 20th Anniversary of the attacks and we remind ourselves to “Never Forget” Graff’s book allows us to move beyond remembering what we as individuals experienced to what happened to us collectively as a nation. Highly recommended, and the 45-member cast audiobook is not to be missed.