Voices of 9/11
The Only Plane in the Sky

Voices of 9/11

Bestseller Garrett M. Graff’s gripping oral history of September 11, 2001, as told by witnesses, participants and survivors.

In this New York Times bestseller, journalist and historian Garrett M. Graff first notes that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were the first modern catastrophe watched by millions in real time on live television. In this oral history of that pivotal day, he captures the tragedy’s confusion, terror and desperation. President George W. Bush and his staff spent the day in the “only plane in the sky” as civilians thwarted hijackers in Pennsylvania, a hijacked plane struck the Pentagon and two hijacked jets hit the Twin Towers, which collapsed. This harrowing, heartbreaking reconstruction will resonate with anyone who watched every minute on TV, those too young to have seen it and everyone in between.

Perfect Weather

September 11, 2001 featured cloudless blue skies. The President was in Florida, reading to schoolchildren as 19 hijackers seized American Airlines Flights 11 and 77 and United Airlines Flights 175 and 93.


Your survival was such a big degree of luck. There are so many points of luck that make you realize how random life is.Garrett M. Graff

Graff reports that news of Flight 11’s hijacking reached air traffic controllers at 8:30 am, and they notified the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). A Flight 93 passenger called his wife to report its hijacking. Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center, but witnesses and the media mistook it initially for an accident. Then, Flight 175 hit the South Tower. Flight 77 disappeared from radar screens and crashed into the Pentagon.


The United States’ defense system design, Graff explains, prioritized external threats, but at the time, it had no mechanism against internal threats. After the plane struck the Pentagon, NORAD received unprecedented instructions to shoot any confirmed hijacked plane out of the sky. Air traffic control ordered every aircraft in US airspace to land at the nearest safe destination. Air traffic controllers landed 4,500 planes in less than two hours. 

No one had ever contemplated the need to shoot down a civilian airliner.Garrett M. Graff

At the World Trade Center, firefighters quickly understood they could not put out the colossal fires nor could they reach victims trapped above the fires. Helicopter rescues were impossible. Graff movingly describes how people – escaping the fire – jumped from the towers; bodies falling 100 stories crashed to the pavement, injuring or killing people on the ground.

Debris and Rescue

Hundreds of first responders rushed to the World Trade Center before the Towers began to collapse. The initial impact drove a fireball down the elevator shaft into the lobby of the North Tower, forcing people dozens of flights up to use the stairs. Graff paints a vivid picture of chunks of debris the size of cars falling and crushing the unprotected.

As the towers collapsed, millions watched on television.On site, people ran from debris and ash clouds moving at the speed of a train.

Your brain couldn’t adjust to the concept of the World Trade Center coming down on you.Garrett M. Graff

Thousands of survivors walked across Brooklyn Bridge or to Battery Park. At the bottom of Manhattan, Graff tells, civilian, commercial, state and federal boats evacuated almost half a million people, “a maritime rescue larger than the World War II evacuation from Dunkirk.” Other survivors walked north, ghostly white, covered in dust, stunned and speechless. On their route, New Yorkers offered water, transportation or phones survivors could use to call their loved ones.

Real Time

New York City received most of the TV coverage, but, Graff reminds readers, 125 people perished at the Pentagon. Donald Rumsfeld later insisted everyone who survived the attack on the Pentagon had to return to work on September 12 to show the world terrorists could not bully the United States.

The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves. Garrett M. Graff

Graff offers an amazing story: Jeremy Glick, a passenger on UA Flight 93, called his wife to tell her that his plane had been hijacked. She told him about the New York and Washington attacks, so Glick surmised that the terrorists would use his flight to attack the Capitol. Within minutes, Flight 93 crashed in rural Pennsylvania at high speed and disintegrated on impact, vaporizing the passengers. The black box survived and revealed the passengers had stormed the cockpit as hijackers crashed the plane.

Thousands Died

From the moment the first plane hit the North Tower to the collapse of both towers, Graff reveals, only 102 minutes passed.

Fires in the Towers’ rubble would burn for 99 days.

The city was plastered with missing persons flyers. No one wanted to be alone.Garrett M. Graff

Rescuers and volunteers found only a handful of survivors atop a mountain of rubble. When survivor William Jimeno got to the hospital, he asked nurses, “Where is everybody?”

They answered, “You’re it.”

The Risk Waters Group, for example, lost dozens of employees. One worker came back to the office on September 13 to find multiple phones ringing at empty desks. He knew family members were calling to hear their murdered loved ones’ voices on voicemail.

Nowhere To Land

Graff relates that Bush wanted to return to Washington immediately, but his security team said no. Air Force One flew at 40,000 feet as security personnel deemed that it wasn’t yet safe to land anywhere in the United States.

As soon as he received confirmation that authorities had accounted for all planes in United States airspace, Bush headed to Washington. Two hundred members of Congress greeted him on the steps of the Capitol.

The mightiest building in the world is on fire. This is the face of war in the 21st century.President George W. Bush

By the time Bush arrived, Graff reveals, everyone knew US Flight 93 had been heading for the capitol, and that the passengers who crashed the plane were heroes. Representatives from both parties sang “God Bless America.” For many people, Graff reveals, 9/11 marked the end of the 20th century.

Seminal Text

You may think you know this story. You may have watched every minute unfold live and have read the reporting or the myriad subsequent books. But none bring the harrowing, unfolding, minute-to-minute tragedy to life as Graff does. Like any well-made oral history, this reads – and is structured and edited – like a film. Each speaker’s voice is like a cut to a different shot, and Graff shows remarkable control of pace, suspense, perspective and, most crucially, narrative. He never sensationalizes. Especially for readers too young to have seen the day live, this is the seminal text.

Garrett M. Graff’s books include The Threat Matrix: The FBI At War and the bestseller Raven Rock. Other books on the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks include The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, Touching History by Lynn Spencer, and Rise and Fall by Michael Zuckoff.


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