I’ve just finished reading the most emotionally wrenching book I’ve ever read. “The Only Plane in the Sky” by Garrett M. Graff is subtitled “An Oral History of 9/11.”
The book includes parts of more than 500 interviews completed by oral history projects and the author, told one paragraph at a time. It brings out the true horror that people on the scene and their families experienced during the four al-Qaeda hijackings.
It’s a story that we all think we already know. All Americans over age 25 today probably remember where they were on 9/11. And yet, I couldn’t put it down. The book is hauntingly excellent.
It includes extremely helpful illustrations, showing which organizations were housed where in the World Trade Center and where the planes hit, then maps of the area around the World Trade Center, the Pentagon grounds and one of the eastern United States showing the flight paths and timelines for each aircraft.
Most of the book rightly tells the stories of victims, first responders and their family members caught up in this massive evil. However, President George W. Bush was reading to some elementary students in Florida when the hijackings occurred. Cutting that visit short, the president was then flown to Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., even though he was arguing with the Secret Service and others to take him back to Washington, D.C. They refused because they did not think it was safe. As Lt. Gen. Tom Heck, commander of Barksdale AFB at that time, said, “People forget how much confusion there was that day about what was actually going on.”
Indeed, the North Tower of the World Trade Center was hit first, at 8:46 a.m. EDT. The South Tower was hit next at 9:03 a.m. However, the South Tower collapsed first, at 9:59 a.m. Most people had never even considered that such a collapse was a possibility.
As it was, many of the first responders in the North Tower did not know that the South Tower had collapsed. They may have heard the roar and shaking, but they did not know what it was. The South Tower collapsed first because the hijacked plane had taken out a corner of the building. It also hit about 10 floors lower than the plane that hit the North Tower, putting that much more stress on the supporting beams holding up the floors above. More people escaped the South Tower because one staircase was left intact. In the North Tower, all of the staircases became inaccessible for anyone above the point of impact. Everyone above, perished.
The book gets its title from a quote by Frank Culbertson, a NASA astronaut who was aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery during 9/11. At 9:42 a.m., five minutes after a third plane hit the Pentagon, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all aircraft over U.S. territory grounded. At the time, 4,500 aircraft were in flight. Of those, 700 landed in the first 10 minutes after the order and 3,500 more in the first hour. At 11:47 a.m., 200 aircraft were still in flight and by 12:18 p.m., that number was down to 50.
Culbertson was used to seeing the contrails of thousands of jets as he passed over the United States. By late afternoon, he saw only one, Air Force One, heading back to Washington.
The book is full of interesting tidbits. For example, the plane that hit the Pentagon came in so low that it clipped off five street lights before hitting the building. One of the street lights crashed through the windshield of a taxi cab. If the driver were a foot or two to his right, he would have been seriously wounded or killed. As it was, he walked away unscathed.
The last plane to crash, Flight 93, which came down in a field near Shanksville, Pa. as passengers tried to regain control of the plane, left only a big hole. Consequently, investigators had to dig down approximately 27 feet before finding the cockpit voice recorder, flight data recorder and other critical evidence. The workers stopped digging at 32 feet. They never found the cockpit, which, like the humans, had disintegrated.
The book alternates between stories of great sadness — family members looking for a son, daughter or parent — and great heroism. In one case, eight people, paired and taking turns, carried a quadriplegic down 69 floors to safety.
Approximately a dozen people survived inside the collapse of the North Tower. Half of them were following the evacuation order when they encountered a woman named Josephine Harris, almost 60 years old, on about the 20th floor. She had descended from the 73rd floor but could go no further. The firemen wanted to get out of the building as quickly as possible, but decided to stop and help her anyway, which slowed them down. They made it down to the fourth floor when the building collapsed. Somehow, their lives were spared.
Almost 10 years later, Josephine Harris died, and those six responders served as her pallbearers. They all believe that their decision to save Harris is what saved them. The lid of her coffin was custom-embroidered with the image of a firefighter and an angel walking hand in hand.
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.