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THE ONLY PLANE IN THE SKY: AN ORAL HISTORY OF 9/11 by Garrett Graff

The Only Plane In The Sky by Garrett Graff is an oral history of 9/11, told by hundreds of people who experienced that day firsthand. Graff painstakingly reconstructed the chronology of September 11, 2001, from the four planes boarding and taking off and President Bush’s now-famous appearance at a school in Sarasota, FL, to the planes colliding with their targets, the falling of the buildings, and the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero and the Pentagon. While this is a very difficult book to read, it is incredibly powerful and one that I highly recommend.

The Only Plane In The Sky is structured as an oral history, with limited additional commentary and information by the author. Hearing the words of the people who lived through it made the whole day more immediate – and, in retrospect, even more scary – for me, and I have a better sense of what they went through and the enormity of the efforts by first responders in both New York and Virginia to rescue people in the buildings. Graff also interviews people who lost loved ones in the building and on the planes, which is of course unbelievably moving and a reminder of the grief that so many people still feel personally experience from 9/11.

I learned a lot from The Only Plane In The Sky as well. One of the people Graff interviewed describes how the nation’s air traffic controllers were able to ground 3,500 of the planes in the air at the time within the first hour of the attacks, and 700 within the first ten minutes. (Of course, one of the things many people commented on about the days after 9/11 was the disconcerting quiet of the planeless skies, punctuated only by the buzz of military planes patrolling major U.S. cities.)

Graff also interviewed people close to President Bush, such as Ari Fleischer and Karen Hughes, and I learned much more about what he did immediately after the attacks and how handicapped Air Force One was by a lack of information and crude communications technology. The president’s plane circled a Florida city while advisers tried to decide where to go, with their only source of news a local TV station whose signal would go in and out as the plane circled in and out of range. Bush and his staff were more in the dark than people watching CNN at home.

I was also unaware of the huge evacuation efforts that took place by boat from lower Manhattan as people fled Ground Zero. Thousands of people were taken to Staten Island and New Jersey by a fleet that consisted of pleasure boats, ferries, Coast Guard vessels, and even private yachts that NYPD broke into while docked to get people (some of whom were jumping into the Hudson River) out of Manhattan.

The Only Plane In The Sky was a tough read, and I did it over about two months because I just couldn’t read that much of it at one time. (I especially had trouble reading it before bed.) But it is one of my top reads of the year, and I feel grateful for the experience of reading it. I never like to call anything “required reading”, but I will call this “very highly recommended reading” for anyone who wants to really understand that happened that day, or who perhaps wasn’t alive in 2001 and didn’t experience it themselves.

I am especially impressed with Garrett Graff, who undertook the task of reviewing thousands of interviews from witnesses to 9/11 and synthesizing them into this highly readable and compelling format.