The Only Plane in the Sky

This cover image released by Avid Reader Press shows "The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11," by Garrett M. Graff. 

“The Only Plane in the Sky: an Oral History of 9/11” (Avid Reader Press), by Garrett M. Graff

People born at least a quarter-century ago probably remember the exact details of what they were doing on that beautiful blue September day when terror was unleashed across the country.

Now, 18 years later, the memories of hundreds of firsthand witnesses tell the story of the 9/11 attacks in their own words, providing a riveting step-by-step account of the day that brought out the best in many Americans.

Garrett M. Graff and his team have assembled interviews from 480 people who share their terrifying and often inspirational memories of the day when hijackers used two passenger planes as weapons to topple the twin towers of the World Trade Center and another to attack the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked plane went down in flames when heroic passengers fought back to bring it down in rural Pennsylvania before it could strike another high-profile target, probably in Washington.

The technique of letting the witnesses tell the story does a remarkable job of bringing to life the horrific day in a way that a writer’s narrative would have a hard time matching.

The day starts with people going through their morning routines before work, admiring the spectacular September day and then coming to the realization, often haltingly, that this would be the most frightening day of their lives.

People were just settling in for the workday or just arriving at work when a plane hijacked from Boston crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.

Most people are aware of the events that followed, but what has faded from memory over the years are the dramatic details, like the emotional accounts of people telling their loved ones that they were trapped in the upper floors of the towers or on hijacked planes, the gradual realization that the towers had been hit by passenger jets, the eventual crashing of those towers and the suffocating clouds of dust that made it impossible to breathe and sent legions of New Yorkers fleeing through the streets like a scene from a sci-fi movie, and the incredibly courageous decision to overpower the hijackers and bring down United 93 over Pennsylvania.

The oral history details the decisions of the President George W. Bush administration on how to deal with a terror attack of unknown dimensions, the deliberations of passengers on United 93 to fight back, the frantic phone calls to loved ones trapped in the towers and planes, the people leaping from dozens of floors up to their death and, throughout, the heroism and humanity of all involved, especially the rescue workers.

It makes for a gripping read — and a reminder of the country at its best while under attack.

President Bush summed it up well in his address to the nation that night.

“Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature and we responded with the best of America, with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors …”

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