It’s really hard to find the words to review this book. The Only Plane in the Sky is a herculean effort on the part of author Garrett M. Graff to comb through hundreds upon hundreds of heartbreaking testimonies (the majority of which were pulled from large-scale oral history projects conducted by a variety of museums, universities, and institutions) from those that lived through the horror of September 11th, 2001. From the attacks on the World Trade Center, to the destruction of the Pentagon, to the heroic actions of the passengers of United 93, everything is covered from sunrise to sunset on that day. I can confidently say that The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 is one of the best books I have ever read.
That said, this is a challenging one to recommend. The words spoken, whether they are from those that worked in the Towers or the Pentagon, those involved in the rescue efforts or the family members left behind following the deaths of their loved ones, were emotional, visceral and raw. I cannot count the number of times I found myself welling up and had to take breaks at certain points – I just can’t imagine the horrors of what people had to witness that day. The stories of bravery on the part of those who risked their lives to both help the severely injured escape as well as those having escaped only to rush back into the destruction to further assist were both inspiring and tragic.
The way in which Graff structures the book has the reader reliving that fateful Tuesday moment by moment. I could feel the claustrophobic atmosphere inside those stairwells and could sense the stress of those frantically searching for a way out of the burning buildings. The pacing is excellent and the book never feels exploitative or that it overstays its welcome. Among many moments, one that sticks out to me was when Graff focuses on the sound of the Towers collapsing and how each person equated it to something similar, but different (the following is from page 149 after the first tower collapsed):
“…the loudest sound I ever heard.”
“…like six or eight subway cars pulling into the stations at the same time with their brakes.”
“…like a thousand freight trains crashed.”
“…like an incoming missile.”
“…like an avalanche.”
“…like a giant chandelier, all the glass breaking.”
“…like 30,000 jets taking off.”
:…like a machine gun.”
“…like a pop and then sift – like taking a bag of sugar and pouring it into a container.”
It’s worth noting that the text isn’t just limited to the attacks directly. Graff also tells of the confusion on the part of the Bush administration – that no one was quite sure how to handle the events or when the attacks would end. The book takes you from the infamous Bush non-reaction upon hearing of the attacks at an elementary school in Florida to the rushing of Vice President Cheney to an underground bunker below the White House. It is believed that the United 93 hijackers were targeting Washington and I was shocked to learn authorization was given to shoot down the plane should it come near the Capital. Fear of a biological attack also gripped the US government, which I also had never heard before.
Graff also pulls from voicemails and recorded calls to 911 from those aboard United 93 and how the passengers believed they could take back control of the plane from the terrorists. These are especially agonizing as we’re not hearing from survivors – we’re hearing from the deceased in their own words. To this day, I have no idea how they found the courage to break free from what must have been paralyzing fear to spring into action.
While I’m not an American nor was I anywhere near Ground Zero, I remember the deep, unsettling nature of that day and how it completely changed my outlook on the world. Graff’s book is an attempt by a civilian to dig as deeply as possible into these events in hopes to provide a comprehensive record of that day. Its goal isn’t to explain why this tragedy occurred, but rather to shine a light on how Americans were able to get through that day. This is an extraordinary read that while I will likely never revisit it, I urge you to read it if only to restore your faith in humanity in an age where we’re more divided than ever.