Book Review

Review: The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff

Title: The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11
Author: Garrett M. Graff
Genre: Nonfiction
Published On: September 10, 2019
Publisher: Avid Reader Press / Simon Schuster
Pages: 512

Synopsis: 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. 

My thoughts

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 will put you right back wherever you were on that fateful day.* It reignites all the emotions and fears, but for those of us who were merely observers, glued to our televisions on that terrible day, this book will give you a glimpse inside the towers, the Pentagon, the debris-filled streets, and the airplane that carried the President, Airforce One. Their stories are riveting and shocking. The enduring spirit of the humans that persevered through the worst trauma imaginable is truly inspiring. It’s a great reminder, at this turbulent time in our country, that we are all Americans, and when it’s important, we know how to unify.

A few words of advice: I didn’t want to put this book down, but it’s highly advisable. The material is daunting and overwhelming. I had to force myself to take breaks, turn on my favorite sitcom, or pick up a different book. And be ready to bookmark the diagrams of the buildings and the index, or keep a pencil and pad nearby. I was constantly finding names in the index so I could follow their specific entries from the beginning. I wanted to know where they were when it started and how they found themselves in their current situation. I read so many stories I’d never heard and had no idea about. 

So while the book is so very sad, it is also so very hopeful.

*On September 11, 2001, my second child was eleven days old. My husband was home on paternity leave with us. I’d just settled in for a few hours of sleep after being up most of the night when he came into the bedroom and insisted I come see what was on the television. I didn’t want to get out of bed, but I finally did. We watched the footage of the planes hitting the towers on repeat and watched live as the towers fell. My newborn eventually developed colic, and I’m convinced it was because she could feel the stress we were all under. It’s impossible to describe to those who weren’t old enough to remember how completely the world changed after 9/11.


Happy Wandering!

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