The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff

If you’re old enough to remember September 11, 2001, you have a story to tell. You know the precise moment you learned an airplane had slammed into one of the World Trade Center towers. Someone called you in a panic and screamed to turn on the TV. Maybe by then it was two planes, and both towers. Your principal announced it over the school P.A. system while you and your classmates stared at each other, bewildered. Or you watched with your family at home, or with colleagues at work, or with strangers in a diner. You saw the towers belching smoke into a perfect blue sky.

Hijacked jets. The Twin Towers and the Pentagon in flames. America under attack. You remember it the way an earlier generation remembered the moment they heard President Kennedy had been shot, or Martin Luther King Jr. You remember it like yesterday, because nothing has felt the same since.

You remember it the way an earlier generation remembered the moment they heard President Kennedy had been shot, or Martin Luther King Jr.

As Garrett M. Graff notes in his compelling new oral history of that day, The Only Plane in the Sky, when we recount our 9/11 stories, others can’t wait to interject with their own experiences—where they were, how they found out, the emotions they felt when they saw skyscrapers collapse like accordions. Each of us has a story, our personal connection to the day’s unthinkable events. And we feel connected by our stories in the same way we, as a nation and a world, felt connected in the days after. We were united.

And yet, the unity of that time now feels more distant than the event itself. The horror remains familiar; the fellowship seems foreign.

Winging It

I have my own story. I even merit a brief mention in Graff’s book. On 9/11, I was a reporter for Time magazine, traveling with President George W. Bush as part of the “press pool,” the group of 13 reporters who stay close when a president travels—on Air Force One, in his motorcade, and into small events. I remember our motorcade pulling up to an elementary school in Sarasota, Florida, where the president was scheduled to discuss education reform. I remember a young press aide matter-of-factly telling us as we filed into the school, “A small twin-engine prop plane flew into one of the World Trade Center towers.” I remember we kept moving.

I remember, as Bush was reading The Pet Goat out loud to a group of second-graders, how the room suddenly hummed in a symphony of vibrating pagers. Reporters still carried pagers in 2001, and we made sure they were set to vibrate so as not to interrupt the president. We didn’t know it yet, but the second tower had been struck. Chief of Staff Andy Card slid quietly into the room, bent over the president, and whispered into his ear. Bush was calm. He kept reading. When he’d finished, we discovered we were at war.

President George W. Bush steps off Air Force One in Shreveport, Louisiana, to address the nation.

From the press section aboard Air Force One, we caught televised images of mayhem, of buildings on fire, and reports that the Pentagon had been hit. The president had announced he was returning to Washington, but we could tell we weren’t. Instead of heading north, we had banked west, flying high and fast over the Gulf of Mexico. Secret Service agents asked us if we knew our destination, because they didn’t. Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, came back to the press cabin and told us to remove the batteries from our phones—in case we were being tracked. We looked through our windows and, finally, saw fighter jets flying, escorting us.

I remember President Bush, shaken, walking into a small room at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and delivering a statement to the nation. And I remember when I and more than half the press pool, on Card’s orders, were kicked off the plane at Barksdale, together with members of Congress and “non-essential” staff. I called Fleischer and argued that it was a mistake not to keep the full pool with the president, because moments like this were why the press pool existed. Nonetheless, Air Force One taxied away and took off for Offutt Air Force Base, in Nebraska. I still believe Fleischer and Card made a mistake. But having since held the press secretary job myself, I also know they were doing the best they could in an unimaginable crisis. Mistakes are human.

We looked through our windows and saw fighter jets flying, escorting us.

The voices in The Only Plane in the Sky are so vivid that the book risks reawakening in readers the full range of reactions to 9/11 that millions of us experienced at the time—not just the horror and grief, but a deep anger that drove us to expect revenge on a scale proportionate to how we felt. As the Israeli author and professor Yuval Noah Harari has noted about 9/11, terrorists “think like theater producers”—vastly outgunned, they aim for drama, and symbolism, hoping they can provoke their vastly more powerful enemy to over-react, and, in over-reacting, to make mistakes. Which the U.S., in response to 9/11, most certainly did.

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. There are the 16 miracle survivors of the north tower’s Stairwell B, most of them firemen, who had 100 floors of concrete and steel collapse on top of them, were buried in rubble, and walked away. There are the Potters: Jean, who worked on the 81st floor of the north tower, and Dan, her husband, a fireman from Ladder 10, who rushed to the scene. Both made it. And there are the 10 extraordinary civilians who carried John Abruzzo, a paralyzed colleague, down 69 flights of stairs in an “evacuation chair,” taking extra time that could have, and almost did, cost them their lives. Those voices resonate the most.

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, a former White House press secretary to President Barack Obama, was a reporter for Time magazine from 1988 to 2008. He is currently Amazon’s senior vice president for global corporate affairs