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Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 Paperback – September 8, 2020
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“This is history at its most immediate and moving…A marvelous and memorable book.” —Jon Meacham
“Remarkable…A priceless civic gift…On page after page, a reader will encounter words that startle, or make him angry, or heartbroken.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Had me turning each page with my heart in my throat…There’s been a lot written about 9/11, but nothing like this. I urge you to read it.” —Katie Couric
The first comprehensive oral history of September 11, 2001—a panoramic narrative woven from voices 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 to The 9/11 Commission Report. But one perspective has been missing up to this point—a 360-degree account of the day told through firsthand.
Now, in The Only Plane in the Sky, 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, declassified documents, original interviews, and oral histories from nearly five hundred government officials, first responders, witnesses, survivors, friends, and family members, he 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, first responders confront a scene of unimaginable horror at the Twin Towers. From a secret bunker under the White House, officials watch for incoming planes on radar. Aboard 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 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 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 trying 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.
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“Graff has woven a powerful, graphic narrative of how September 11 played out everywhere from the International Space Station to the inside of the collapsing World Trade Center towers. . . . I repeatedly cried. I could feel my pulse elevate. I often had to put it down after a dozen pages. But I think that’s the point of the book. September 11 was terrible and confusing, and the more time passes, sometimes the harder that is to remember. No matter how much we try to describe those feelings to children who didn’t live through them, something will be lost in the translation and telling. This book captures the emotions and unspooling horror of the day. It will be a good text to hand to a curious teenager when he one day asks: What was September 11 really like?” —Scott Detrow, NPR
“Over 64 fine-sliced chapters, Mr. Graff . . . gives us ‘the stories of those who lived through and experienced 9/11—where they were, what they remember, and how their lives changed.’ The result is remarkable, and Mr. Graff’s curation of these accounts—drawn from hundreds of his own interviews and from the reporting of other journalists and historians—is a priceless civic gift. . . . The book is refreshingly free from editorializing, ideology and ululation. It gives us instead poignant, often distressing, vignettes and impressions of the day and its aftermath. On page after page, a reader will encounter words that startle, or make him angry, or heartbroken, or queasy.” —Tunku Varadarajan, The Wall Street Journal
“Remarkable . . . Incredibly evocative and compelling . . . Allows you to experience this fateful day in an intimately visceral fashion, starting with the ordinary (the sky was gorgeously blue) and progressing to confusion, fear, numbness, and grief. . . . By letting those who were present tell stories in their own words, Graff has created a remarkably effective and deeply moving history. Be careful if you read this book in public—at some point you may encounter a story or detail that will bring back memories that overwhelm you.” —Lucinda Robb, The Washington Post
“Intense . . . Dramatic . . . Graff’s project beautifully achieves its chief goal—educating people too young or born too late to remember what the day of September 11, 2001, felt like. But it also restores a form [oral history] to its rightful place as necessity.” —Ginia Bellafante, New York Times Book Review
“An ambitious oral history of 9/11 from the perspective of nearly everyone involved—from Laura Bush to the first firefighter on the scene to the young gate agent who checked the hijackers’ plane tickets. Every single line is breathtaking and heartbreaking, weaving together the story of previously unimaginable and tragic events that changed the course of history.” —Newsweek
“Compelling . . . The voices in The Only Plane in the Sky are so vivid. . . . There are snippets in Graff’s oral history from those who perished—messages for loved ones left by office workers stranded on the upper floors of the towers; calls from flight attendants and passengers aboard United Flight 93 that were recorded or remembered. But most of the voices in the book belong to survivors. That may explain, at least in part, why The Only Plane in the Sky manages to feel hopeful. . . . Eventually, of course, all of us who remember 9/11 will be gone, and some of our stories will be forgotten. But, thanks to Graff’s fine work, many will endure.” —Jay Carney, Air Mail
“A harrowing account of the September 11 attacks, told through the voices of many who were personally affected. Graff weaves together the stories of airline workers, first responders, generals at the Pentagon and more to contextualize and seek to further understand the trauma, humanity and history of 9/11.” —Time magazine (“The 42 Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2019”)
“Oral history at its finest . . . Graff’s skillful organization and flawless pacing allows him to present multiple perspectives, quickly shifting locations and points of view around the country, to follow every moment. The result is a smooth-flowing, moving and thoroughly human narrative with emotional impact, a sense of detail and immediacy more powerful and moving than any dramatic film or documentary.” —Rich Kienzle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Much has been written over the past 18 years about 9/11, but none have told the story of that day as powerfully and intimately . . . Sure to become an essential addition to the literature of 9/11, it is the only panoramic account of the day told by the people who experienced it. . . . Graff has created an enduring portrait of a day that changed the world forever, a day that the world will never forget.” —Joel Meador, The Messenger
"Woven together, each piece assembles into a fresco/tapestry with great evocative power, one that gives readers the feeling of reliving - minute by minute - a tragic day on which nearly 3,000 people of 90 different nationalities were killed and 6,000 were injured. But The only plane in the sky wouldn’t be the gem is it without Garrett Graff’s masterful editing and his sense of rhythm; it allows a closeness with the event as it was experienced – and still is today – by those who lived through it. For this reason, this exceptional document must also be read as a brilliant work of immediate history that reports on the upheavals of the world precisely where they happen: at the heart of the human experience." —Le Monde
“Graff excels at re-creating the anxiety and terror of that day . . . Readers who emerge dry-eyed from the text should check their pulses: Something is wrong with their hearts.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Harrowing and powerful . . . This vivid, moving work is painful to read but honors both those who died and those who survived that awful day.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“This is history at its most immediate and moving. In The Only Plane in the Sky, Garrett Graff has crafted an enduring portrait of a deadly and consequential day, a day that has shaped all other subsequent days in America for nearly two decades. A marvelous and memorable book.” —Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America
“As I read The Only Plane in the Sky, I was instantly transported back to the chaos, shock, and fear that we all felt on September 11. Reliving the day in real time, through the eyes of Americans on the ground and in the air, had me turning each page with my heart in my throat. I may have known how the story would end, but reading these intensely personal accounts reminded me why this tragic day would change us forever, while the stories of courage and resilience renewed my faith in humanity. There’s been a lot written about 9/11, but nothing like this. I urge you to read it.” —Katie Couric, author of The Best Advice I Ever Got
“Although many years have passed since 9/11, this book, told with such immediacy, brings so vividly back to mind the shock of that day, and why it continues to shape the tragic history that has followed.” —Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower
“The Only Plane in the Sky is a stunning and important work—chilling, heartbreaking—and I cannot stop thinking about it. To hear the voices of those who survived, and those who did not, is so moving and powerful. I learned so much, and am so thankful for this book.” —Anderson Cooper, author of Dispatches from the Edge
“Raw, emotional, and intense, this jaw-dropping narrative, composed entirely of firsthand accounts, strips away the politics that have grown up around 9/11 and have clouded its brutal impact on the American psyche. Rarely is history delivered with such vivid sensory detail. Garrett Graff’s meticulous reporting transported us, with visceral clarity, back to those horrifying hours that changed us all forever.” —Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic, authors of Indianapolis
“Garrett Graff has deftly used oral history to take us into the one of the most horrific and consequential moments in American history, in a book that will be particularly important for those readers too young to remember September 11, 2001.” —Michael Beschloss, author of Presidents of War
“Before there was the written word, there was oral history—one human telling another his or her experience—and Graff takes us back to our human roots in doing what he does here in this harrowing, relentless but ultimately soaring tale. Using 500 or so "voices" culled together from large-scale oral history projects and personal interviews alike, Graff weaves together a narrative that takes your breath away. . . . Intensely readable, deeply personal, and profoundly transformative.” —Annie Jacobsen, author of Operation Paperclip and The Pentagon’s Brain
“9/11 is one of the hinge events of American history and Garrett Graff adds considerably to our knowledge of the horrors and the heroism that characterized that terrible day. The Only Plane in the Sky is a deeply researched and authoritative account.” —Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt
“A truly riveting book, at once tragic and thrilling, and a testament to the power of memory.” —Tim Weiner, author of Legacy of Ashes
About the Author
- Publisher : Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster (September 8, 2020)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 528 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1501182218
- ISBN-13 : 978-1501182211
- Item Weight : 1.15 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.38 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #13,502 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
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Top reviews from the United States
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One of the things I like most about it is it's format. "Oral History". That format has been around for awhile and is quite popular. If you read the "Oral History of SNL", you know what it's like.
It's written in a flowing conversation involving a hundred different people. Each paragraph is a different person (a survivor, a witness, President Bush, a fireman, a deli worker, etc. etc.) adding to the conversation, which is laid out in order of events. So where one person starts to tell about something, it is picked up by the next person in the narrative. So you get multiple viewpoints of the same events.
And since it's not written as "just the facts" kind of narrative, it's from people who lost loved ones in the attack, and from survivors, it tends to be an extremely emotional read. It transports you back to the time and places of 9/11/2001.
"If there's just one book to read....." about 9/11, I highly suggest this one!
The book is a must read to capture not only the history of the day but to be reminded (or learn, for younger generations) of the emotions woven into these historic and tragic events.
The anecdotes from people directly involved in the events of 9/11 are well selected and skillfully edited. They bring you back to what it felt like on that day, and much more, since most of us were not at ground zero. (Thankfully!) The author also skillfully avoids any political polarization, this is a story about the events of the day with no opinions injected.
Despite the fact that the major events of the day are already known, you won't want to put this down. People too young to remember that day would do well to read this. Essential reading to get a better understanding of what really happened that day. Not what you call a "fun" read, but there is enough heroism and hope contained between the covers that you still feel better for having read it, despite the scope of the tragedy.
BTW, if you have not read the Politico Piece by the same name, you can still find it on the internet, and it is still worth reading. It's tight focus on Air Force One gives it a little different feel, and it contains details that were edited from from the book.
I'd read the original magazine article that formed the basis of the book, and I remember thinking what a revelation it was to hear from those closest to the President what that day was like from their perspective. To take that and turn it into this book - with all the nuance, drama, emotion, loss, love - is an astounding achievement. I feel lucky to have read this on 9/11, and cannot recommend it highly enough.
By presenting people's experiences in chronological order, with no other commentary other than that needed to place a context for orientation, this is that unusual creation - an unbiased history. They are grouped in logical sequences so that a section from people evacuating the North Tower will be followed by a section from firefighters gearing up and then one from air traffic controllers struggling to understand what just happened. In this way, the sequence of events unfolds so that the day begins to make sense in a way it didn't when events were unfolding before our eyes.
I was fascinated by the parts behind the scenes such as on Air Force One or the air traffic controllers or inside reporters thoughts, which were new to me. But the entire thing was gripping and conveyed the reality of just what an act of war that terrorist attack was - in a way that I couldn't take in when I was one of those watching in confused horror on that fateful day, struggling to come to grips with what was happening.
This book brought back my familiar feelings from that time while stitching together events and giving me the broader understanding through which I could both understand better and honor more fully the incredible losses and heroism we experienced. All through using only these oral testimonies. Extraordinary.
Top reviews from other countries
This book is beyond special. The first thing you notice is the structure and layout. I love how different it is. Graff begins the book on the day prior to September 11th 2001, and then continues into the weeks and months following the heartbreaking tragedy.
The book was put together so brilliantly. It’s the story of everyone - the victims, the survivors, the families waiting for news, other pilots, the politicians, the emergency services, the American in space and so on. It was not just one person’s experience, it’s the memories of hundreds of Americans. This was not a book I could get through in one sitting. It was incredibly emotional, and heart breaking. I dipped in and out of the book alongside reading another book. There were also photos included from the site, flight plans etc, and the index was really well done - making it easy to look up names of survivors, victims etc mentioned in the book.
If I had to try and sum this book up in 3 words, they would be: Powerful, terrifying and heart breaking.
It told me a lot I hadn't already been aware of, either. I had no idea those flight numbers had been retired from service, that 2 key players (a police commissioner and Speaker of the House) would be later imprisoned for unrelated criminal activities, the images firefighters gave us of having to drive across body parts and all the women's shoes that were left behind; also the fact there was part of a federal armoury based in one of the towers so along with fire and building collapse to contend with, there were bullets flying, too !! The perspective from the International Space Station was highly fascinating to read about as well.
Reading some of the passages by people as it happened actually made me sweaty as I read.....you KNOW what happens next but they had no idea at the time and you just can't imagine how appalling it had to be. Plus those in the thick of it, whether on Flight 93 or in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon knew less that we all did, even here in the UK, watching it occur on television. For much of the day I knew more about what was going on than Bush did !! And personnel in the Pentagon had no idea their building had been hit by an incoming jet; if they WERE aware at all, it was assumed it was a truck bomb that had driven into it !! I smiled to myself when a Secret Service guy phoned his wife and wouldn't tell her where he was heading with the President but she knew as she'd seen it on television !!
Brian Sweeney's voicemail for his wife just broke my heart and had me sobbing, as did Mark Bingham phoning his mum and saying, "Mom, this is Mark Bingham"......Cathy Pavelec thanking every firefighter she encountered on her way to safety, Rick Rescorla's call to his wife, the dreadful first firefighter's death-Danny Suhr, Sean Rooney's words of comfort to his wife. She wrote about not wanting to go to bed and sleep that night because, until she did so, the day was still one she'd shared with him. Just so devastatingly sad. Also gutted to have googled them both only to learn she died in a plane crash in 2009 on her way to award a scholarship in Sean's name in their home town.....you have to wonder at the godawful things that happen to good people. I felt horrible for the poor ticket agent Vaughn Allex, too, who was basically sent to coventry by many coworkers once they realised he'd ushered 2 of the hijackers onto their flight, as they barely made it.....like the poor sod had a clue ? That was spiteful of them.
A worker realised the ash all over them was basically part of a building along with human remains......at the time I knew a woman whose hubby worked for the NYPD. When he eventually returned home that night, I recall her telling us he wouldn't let his little dogs get too close cos' he was also covered in the same dreaded dust.
I looked up the Pentagon Memorial and it's a lovely tribute and so is The Tower of Voices out in Pennsylvania. This is definitely a book to keep, a real piece of history.