All The Books I Can Read

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Review: The Only Plane In The Sky: The Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff

on December 20, 2019

The Only Plane In The Sky: The Oral History Of 9/11
Garrett M. Graff
Monoray (Hachette UK)
2019, 480
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

The first comprehensive oral history of September 11, 2001—a panoramic narrative woven from the voices of Americans on the front lines of an unprecedented national trauma.

Over the past eighteen years, monumental literature has been published about 9/11, from Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, which traced the rise of al-Qaeda, to The 9/11 Commission Report, the government’s definitive factual retrospective of the attacks. But one perspective has been missing up to this point—a 360-degree account of the day told through the voices of the people who experienced it.

Now, in The Only Plane in the Sky, award-winning journalist and bestselling historian Garrett Graff tells the story of the day as it was lived—in the words of those who lived it. Drawing on never-before-published transcripts, recently declassified documents, original interviews, and oral histories from nearly five hundred government officials, first responders, witnesses, survivors, friends, and family members, Graff paints the most vivid and human portrait of the September 11 attacks yet.

Beginning in the predawn hours of airports in the Northeast, we meet the ticket agents who unknowingly usher terrorists onto their flights, and the flight attendants inside the hijacked planes. In New York City, first responders confront a scene of unimaginable horror at the Twin Towers. From a secret bunker underneath the White House, officials watch for incoming planes on radar. Aboard the small number of unarmed fighter jets in the air, pilots make a pact to fly into a hijacked airliner if necessary to bring it down. In the skies above Pennsylvania, civilians aboard United Flight 93 make the ultimate sacrifice in their place. Then, as the day moves forward and flights are grounded nationwide, Air Force One circles the country alone, its passengers isolated and afraid.

More than simply a collection of eyewitness testimonies, The Only Plane in the Sky is the historic narrative of how ordinary people grappled with extraordinary events in real time: the father and son working in the North Tower, caught on different ends of the impact zone; the firefighter searching for his wife who works at the World Trade Center; the operator of in-flight telephone calls who promises to share a passenger’s last words with his family; the beloved FDNY chaplain who bravely performs last rites for the dying, losing his own life when the Towers collapse; and the generals at the Pentagon who break down and weep when they are barred from rushing into the burning building to try to rescue their colleagues.

At once a powerful tribute to the courage of everyday Americans and an essential addition to the literature of 9/11, The Only Plane in the Sky weaves together the unforgettable personal experiences of the men and women who found themselves caught at the center of an unprecedented human drama. The result is a unique, profound, and searing exploration of humanity on a day that changed the course of history, and all of our lives.

I think I first heard about this book when I was voting in the Goodreads Choice Awards. It sounded interesting and I requested it from my local library. The book begins with the statement that all Americans of a certain age, remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when they heard what was happening on 9/11. And to be honest, that’s probably true in many places outside of America. I will never forget where I was and what I was doing in those first moments where I heard about it. I was living at university in a residential hall and I had Wednesday (9/11 was a Tuesday, but I woke up to the news on Wednesday as it occurred overnight for us) off classes and I spent that day in the common room with all of my residential buddies, watching the footage. At the time I was doing a degree in tourism, so it ended up being incorporated into our studies, given not only was the World Trade Centre a place of work for thousands of people but huge numbers of visitors made the pilgrimage there each day also.

What I really like about this book, is that it’s not about the politics, or the foreign policy or choices of countries or groups that led up to the attack. All of that has been rehashed a million times I suppose. This is purely what the title says – an oral history of the day, in the words of the people that experienced it. It’s told in chronological time order, so it begins early in the morning on the 11th and slowly moves forward, hopping back and forth between people and locations to paint the entire picture. It’s people who were going to work, people who were EMTs, first responders, people who were at home with loved ones either heading to work in those locations or who had the unfortunate fate to board one of the four planes. It’s people who narrowly escaped being caught up in by a twist of fate – and people who might not have normally been caught up in it but were. It’s almost a minute by minute account of what happened from those who were closest to it from such a variety of perspectives. It gives you such a feel of the atmosphere in so many different places, from so many different people: workers trying to get out of the towers, people on the ground watching the horror unfold, the helplessness of people when they realised the towers were going to come down, the devastation at the people that didn’t make it out, the people waiting by the phone desperate for news, the politicians who were being evacuated to bunkers and safe locations in case the threat wasn’t over, the people on Air Force One and the confusion about what to do/where to go with the President, where was safe. They didn’t know who they could trust, what other threats might still be lurking. The logistics of closing the air space and grounding the planes in the sky after it became apparent that it was a calculated attack and there could be more coming. There’s a lot going on in this but it’s put together so flawlessly that it never feels confusing, even though you’re reading about true chaos.

I’ve read many individual stories coming out of 9/11 but I’ve never read something that so comprehensively captures the experience as a whole. It really is an unforgettable moment in history for those of us that were of an age to experience it and this book does such a good job of giving the people a voice. It’s informative but the focus is on human experience and the reactions and actions of those that were so close to it, be it in New York, Washington or Pennsylvania. It’s a really powerful, emotional read and perhaps enjoying it isn’t the right word, because this is first hand accounts of people’s grief and suffering. But it was brilliant and confronting and I am absolutely glad I read it.


Book #213 of 2019


2 responses to “Review: The Only Plane In The Sky: The Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff

  1. A lot of American bloggers have been raving about this, I was curious as to how an ‘outsider’ might find it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  2. […] The Only Plane In The Sky: An Oral History Of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff. This was so good. It’s just so simple – the story of what happened to each person on 9/11 from people who worked in the Twin Towers, first responders, loved ones who lost people either in the towers or those who were on the planes. It’s in chronological order from the early morning onward and it is pure story, no politics. My review. […]

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