I can’t think of a better book to close out the decade than The Only Plane in the Sky. This is one of the most important books I’ve ever read, a book I think should be required reading for all Americans, especially the younger generations.
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’ve always been fascinated with people experiencing the same event in a variety of different ways, and this book fully takes readers through several of the countless perspectives of September 11, 2001. It was fascinating and heartwrenching to think of those intimate last moments for so many victims and families that day. I honestly can’t put into words how vivid these accounts were and how they brought that day back to my mind, almost as if I was living it again myself.
Being only 11 when the attacks happened, I still am dumbfounded by how little I understood that day and for many years after. Like many people mentioned in the book, I had never before heard the words “terrorism”, “Al Qaeda”, “Osama Bin Laden”, or even “World Trade Center” and “Twin Towers” before that day. And suddenly, those words were in regular parts of every American’s vocabulary. This evil stole such a huge part of every child’s innocence that day.
Reflecting upon September 11 now, from the adult point-of-view, is absolutely terrifying. I can’t imagine the fear everyone lived with for days and years later, wondering if another catastrophic moment was to come. Every 9/11, to watch the newscasts and videos from that day, feels like a terrible punch in the gut. One thought comes to me every time, “I just watched so many people die in one instant.” The uneasy, queasy feeling doesn’t leave on the anniversary after all this time. I can’t imagine what it must be like for the families of the victims. This book offers the briefest glimpse into what so many have lived with every day since that horrible, monumental day in history.
Repeatedly throughout my listening of this audiobook, I was shocked to the point of needing to replay what I’d listened to, just to hear it again. I would pause the story to let the words sink in, or pause it only to cry. There are so many unimaginable things that wouldn’t even make sense in a fictional story. It was easy to fall down the Internet rabbit-hole looking up moments mentioned in this book for further descriptions and understanding.
I think this book is arguably the most important book I’ve ever read (or listened to, in this case). I strongly recommend the audio, as it offers recordings of phone calls, speeches, and other moments on this historic day. It’s powerful, emotional, and astounding – and yet those words don’t suffice it.
Rating: 5 stars