Recently, on the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, my dad wrote a review of a book called The Only Plane In The Sky, written by Garret M. Graff. This book tells an oral history of the events leading up to, during, and after September 11th, 2001, and draws from hundreds of transcripts of interviews to tell the stories of the people around the world who lived through that day.
At the end of my dad’s post, he mentioned that I had started reading the book, and that maybe I’d share my own review once I finished it. Initially, I didn’t think that would happen. It was taking me a while to get through the almost 500 pages, and despite all of the first-hand accounts I was reading, I felt detached from the story. Sure, I could try to visualize what was going on in my mind, but at the same time, I couldn’t.
I wasn’t alive on September 11th, 2001. I didn’t watch the towers fall on tv that day. I wasn’t flying somewhere, or wondering if my loved ones had survived the unimaginable. So while I could conjure up some imagery inside my head, I didn’t have that personal connection that adult readers did, and that acted as a barrier that prevented me from really understanding what the people who’d been interviewed had witnessed and gone through. To be quite honest, even though I knew what I was reading was real, it felt more like I was watching a movie. In a movie, you know that the blood is fake, and that the actors whose characters had died were still kicking around. As much as I reminded myself that 9/11 had actually happened, my brain seemed to be in denial because I couldn’t make that crucial connection.
As I reached the end of the book, I was looking at a few pages that consisted only of photographs. While I flipped through them, my eyes stopped on a picture of firefighters taking a break during the recovery efforts at Ground Zero. For some reason, my brain told me, hey, that looks familiar. But I hadn’t been there when that was taking place. So why would a photograph taken in 2001 seem familiar? Just then, something finally clicked.
Two summers ago, my family visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum during our trip to New York City. Walking to the entrance, we took in the same sights that office workers would have once seen from their windows; the same sights that overlooked recovery operations days, weeks, and months after the attacks. Of course these scenes would penetrate my semi-conscious. So when I looked closer at the picture of the firefighters, I realized that I recognized the facade of some of the buildings behind them. And with that realization, my mental dam finally burst.
Reading the final chapters, my stomach tied itself into a knot, and I became increasingly sad and horror-struck as I saw the whole event in a new light. Yes, I’d done so 17 years after the fact, but I had walked around the place where the towers fell. For the first time, instead of picturing an imaginary location that saw the Twin Towers somewhere near Times Square and the Empire State Building, I was finally able to associate the attacks with taking place in a location that I’d spent several hours in and around.
Eventually, my emotional state got to the point where I couldn’t read certain sections anymore. Now that 9/11 felt real to me, I didn’t want to hear about any more fruitless searches for loved ones that only resulted in heartbreak, or the civilians and colleagues who rescuers couldn’t get to in time. When I finally reached the last page, I curled up into a ball and tried to process what I’d read.
Immediately afterwards, I had a thought that made that feeling in my stomach so much worse. While I was experiencing overwhelming sadness and grief on one level, those feelings would be magnified many times over for the adults in my life. Some of them knew people who were in Washington, D.C, that day. Others, like my parents, had to figure out how to tell the students in their care what had happened without causing panic and fear. And for the people I don’t know, who survived the collapses of the Pentagon and the Twin Towers, who lost friends and family, and went through things no one should ever have to experience- I can’t even imagine the pain they felt then, and even now all these years later.
Even typing this up, I felt that there was a decent chance this post would never get published. For one thing, it’s much more serious and emotional than anything I’ve ever posted before, and I don’t want my blog to fall into that rut. While it’s certainly important to share my feelings on certain things, this is a book blog first and foremost. I want to brighten up your day a little bit with the power of my words by talking about the great books I’ve read, instead of bringing you down.
But, at the same time, not everything in life can be sunshine and rainbows all the time. Bad things happen sometimes, and the aftermath shapes the world we live in. Take COVID-19, for example. In the spring of this year, the world essentially shut down. No one left their houses; the streets were deserted. Fear and worry ran rampant. But withdrawing from society showed us just how much of an impact we have on our environment. The air was cleaner. Fuel emissions dropped overnight. We all learned to make do with less, and for the first time were able to see our planet beginning to heal. Like COVID- 19, 9/11, as horrific as it was, showed us the changes we needed to make, and many parts of the world today are better because of it. Not all of the parts, though. You’ll see why at the end of this post.
As I wrap this up, I will leave you with two thoughts.
The first is that I highly recommend The Only Plane In The Sky to everyone, but especially to my friends, classmates, and the generations that come after us. Obviously there are scenes of great violence, devastation, and horror in this book, so maybe don’t choose to read it if those things set you off. But if we don’t learn from the past, we’re doomed to repeat it. Not knowing our history will hinder our ability to create a better future.
The stories of everyday people told in this book really provide insight to what went on during 9/11, helping us to understand the events from a human perspective. The workers involved aren’t the protagonists in dystopian novels, but people like you and me. Once you understand that, it’s much easier to relate to their feelings and experiences.
I also enjoyed the fact that this book didn’t just zero in on the Twin Towers and New York City. There was equal, if not more, attention given to the Pentagon attack, and way more coverage on Flight 93(which crash-landed in Pennsylvania) than many other books would give. But most of all, I liked learning about the stories that fell under the radar, told by the people who were in the thick of the action. We get a front-row seat on Air Force One as White House staff try to figure out what to do, and where it’s safe to go. Boat crew tell us about the evacuation of survivors from Manhattan, resulting in the largest maritime evacuation since World War 2. Fighter pilots detail the missions they flew, and the discovery that they might be forced to shoot down hijacked aircraft. All these stories and more can be found inside the pages of The Only Plane In The Sky.
All in all, I am blown away by this book. It’s insanely well researched, and once you have that connection to the story, it’s like you’re right there with the narrators. I highly, highly recommend it. No other book, not even an entry in the I Survived series, helped me to grasp the concept of 9/11 like this did.
My second and final thought is an excerpt from a tumblr post I found online one day. Now, I’m not trying to deny the tragedy of the 2,976 people who died because of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. I’m not trying to say that American and world leaders weren’t justified in wanting to seek revenge on the terrorists. But please take a second to think about the words in this tumblr post. Just because one group of people is responsible for an act of terror doesn’t mean that residents living in the same city or country as them are guilty by association.