We have some planes. – Mohammad Atta, Hijacker
I look at the clock, and every time I look at the clock, it seems to be 9:11. I’m like, “Oh, 9:11 again.” It just happens, something so simple like that. – Sharon Miller, Officer, Port Authority Police Department (PAPD)
On September 10, 2019, Avid Reader Press – an imprint of Simon & Schuster – published The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11. This 512-page fully illustrated hardcover book was written by journalist/historian Garrett M. Graff, and it hit bookstores on the eve of the 18th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed 2,996 people – 2,977 victims and 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists who committed murder-suicide in New York City, Washington DC, and on a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Every orbit, we kept trying to see more of what was happening. One of the most startling effects was that within about two orbits, all the contrails normally crisscrossing the United States had disappeared because they had grounded all the airplanes and there was nobody else flying in U.S. airspace except for one airplane that was leaving a contrail from the central U.S. toward Washington. That was Air Force One heading back to D.C. with President Bush. – Commander Frank Culbertson, astronaut, NASA, in the prologue (Aboard the International Space Station)
Graff, who also wrote this year’s Watergate: A New History, writes in his introduction that he “spent three years collecting the stories of those who lived through and experienced 9/11 – where they were, what they remember, and how their lives changed. The book that follows is based on more than 500 oral histories, conducted by me as well as dozens of other historians and journalists over the last seventeen years.”
From the Publisher
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 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. – From the dust jacket, The Only Plane in the Sky
Father Mychal Judge, chaplain, FDNY (at the rededication of a Bronx firehouse on Monday, September 10,2001): Good days. Bad days. Up days. Down days. Sad days. Happy days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up. You put one foot in front of another. You get on the rig and you go out and you do the job. Which is a mystery. And a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig. No matter how big the call. No matter how small. You have no idea what God is calling you to. But he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.
The Only Plane in the Sky is presented as a series of personal recollections of people – some, like former President George W. Bush and retired NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, prominent personages known by millions of Americans; others, such as Lyzbeth Glick, wife of United Flight 93 passenger Jeremy Glick, ordinary Americans who were leading ordinary lives on September 10, 2001, the starting point of The Only Plane in the Sky.
Except for some brief paragraphs to set up the scene – as it were – or to add context or provide more details, The Only Plane in the Sky tells the story of the “day when the world stopped turning” through the recollections of eyewitnesses at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, the Pentagon in Arlington, VA, and Shanksville, PA, as well as the various command posts, military bases, and key government offices as America grappled with the most serious attack on its soil since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor nearly 70 years before.
Additionally, as in the case of New York Fire Department chaplain Father Mychal Judge – known to the firefighters and paramedics as “Father Mike” – quotes from those who died on 9/11 are transcribed verbatim from recordings made at the time, including emergency calls and final messages sent to loved ones’ voicemail by passengers and flight attendants aboard the four hijacked airliners – American Airlines Flight 11, United Flight 175, American Flight 77, and United Flight 93:
Betty Ong: Um, the cockpit is not answering. Someone’s stabbed in business class, and, um, I think there is Mace – that we can’t breathe. I don’t know, I think we’re being hijacked.
Winston Sadler: Which flight are you on?
Betty Ong: Flight 12.
Winston Sadler: And what seat are you in? [Silence] Ma’am, are you there?
Betty Ong: Yes.
Winston Sadler: What seat are you in? [Silence] Ma’am, what seat are you in?
Betty Ong: We just left Boston, we’re up in the air.
Winston Sadler: I know.
Betty Ong: We’re supposed to go to L.A. and the cockpit’s not answering their phone….
“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
Like millions of Americans who were alive on 9/11 and old enough to make informed observations and have vivid memories of “red letter days,” I remember where I was and what I was doing when I found out about the attacks on that fateful Tuesday, now 21 years in the past.
I also remember that life in America is now referred to as “before 9/11” and “after 9/11.” You know, as in, “Before September 11, no one worried about whether or not your fellow passengers carried knives or box cutters.” Those bladed items were allowed on planes and no one even thought they might be used to hijack a jetliner. Now, try getting one past Transportation Safety Administration agents at preflight security checkpoints and see what happens. (The TSA and preflight inspections are only a tiny part of 9/11’s legacy regarding air travel in the U.S. and abroad.)
It’s no exaggeration when folks like me say that the world was vastly different on September 10, 2001, from that which emerged after Al-Qaeda’s spectacular strike at America’s two centers of gravity – New York City and Washington, D.C.
Nostalgia aside, no way was life in the United States idyllic – Americans were still getting over a bitterly contested Presidential election less than a year before, and society was grappling with many of the issues we grapple with in the era of Trump and the “Make America Great Again” movement: wealth inequity, racial divisions, prejudice against LGBQTI folks, and the schism between two competing visions for America – that of conservatives, and that of liberals.
Still, on September 10, 2001, Americans by and large lived as if we were immune from the troubles of the outside world, even as jet travel and the Internet had made the world ever smaller since the 1960s…and American complacency about the threat from abroad, especially that posed by Islamic extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda…made the nation vulnerable to attacks from across the two oceans we believed protected us from any dangerous enemies who wished to do us harm.
After 9/11, of course, that mindset vanished, along with the Twin Towers, the original Wedge One of the Pentagon, and four jetliners registered to America’s two largest airlines, not to mention the 2,977 men, women, and children who died by the actions of 19 religious extremists from the Middle East.
The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 does not delve into the big picture of how and why Osama bin Laden successfully sent 19 Al-Qaeda jihadists – a 20th member of the terror group was prevented from entering the U.S. at Orlando International Airport – to commit the largest act of murder-suicide on U.S. soil.
It also does not cover in great detail the Global War on Terror, a war which has been going on for so long that babies born on the two-day period covered in The Only Plane in the Sky became old enough to enlist in the armed forces as early as 2018; 17-year-olds with a high school diploma or GED can enlist if they pass the ASVAB basic skills test and have signed permission from parents, And 2019, the year in which the book was published, was when the first post-9/11 generation’s kids became freshmen in college.
Jane Clayson, anchor, The Early Show, CBS: (referring to the crash of United Flight 175 into the South Tower at 9:03 AM) We saw it live. As it rounded the corner, there were people in the studio pointing to monitors. You could see it coming. You could hear gasps throughout the studio. Then it exploded into that building. There was silence. We all looked at one another.
“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
The Only Plane in the Sky includes two inserts of color photographs taken on September 10 and 11, 2001 and at the scene of several memorial sites. Some are startling – if heartachingly – gorgeous shots of the pre-9/11 New York City skyline; others are horrifying photos of United Flight 175 flying directly on a collision course with the South Tower as the North Tower, struck minutes earlier by American Flight 11, burns. Included in the first insert is AP photographer Richard Drew’s “Falling Man” photo of an unidentified man who chose to jump to his death rather than die in the burning North Tower.
Clearly, this is not a book for the squeamish. It is a book about perhaps the most traumatic event in recent U.S. history, full of accounts of bravery, sacrifice, horror, and – on the part of the terrorists – unimaginable cruelty born out of religious fanaticism and intolerance toward other worldviews besides their own.
Mike Morell (aboard Air Force One, the “only plane in the sky”): The president’s mil aide, Tom Gould, was looking out the window on the left side of the plane. He motioned me over: “Look.” There was a fighter plane on the wingtip. In the distance, you could see the still-burning Pentagon. Throughout the day, all this is happening and you don’t really have a chance to feel the emotion. But that got to me. Tears filled my eyes for the first time that day.
Still, The Only Plane in the Sky gives readers – especially those who were either small kids on 9/11 or were born in the years that followed – a wide array of first-hand accounts of the events that took place on that cloudless September day when life changed – forever.
 In her panic, Ong gave the wrong flight number.