Journalist, author, and historian Garrett Graff discussed his new book The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan on September 23, 2019.
Garrett Graff is the director of the Aspen Institute’s cyber-security and technology program, and is a contributor to WIRED, Longreads, and CNN. He’s written for publications from Esquire to the New York Times, and served as the editor of two of Washington’s most prestigious magazines, Washingtonian and POLITICO Magazine.
Graff is the author of multiple books, including The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House, which examined the role of technology in the 2008 presidential race, and The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller’s FBI, which traces the history of the FBI’s counter-terrorism efforts. His book, Raven Rock, a national bestseller, about the government’s Cold War Doomsday plans, was published in May 2017, and his most recent book, co-authored with John Carlin, examined the rise of cyber threats, Dawn of the Code War: America’s Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat.
The basis of Graff’s new book was the 2016 article We’re the Only Plane in the Sky for POLITICO Magazine. The report centered on the people who were aboard Air Force One with President George W. Bush as it became the only plane in the sky on September 11, 2001 following the terrorizing attacks in Washington, D.C. and New York City. 28 participants provided oral histories including the pilot of Air Force One (AF1), Pat Tillman; the pilots of the escort fighter planes with AF1; White House Chief of Staff, Andy Card; White House Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer; and White House Press Corps members.
As noted by the author, Graff was astounded by the reader feedback from the article and his goal for the book was to capture what America experienced on 9/11. Graff wanted to expand the story of 9/11 from just the hijacked planes, the Twin Towers, and the Pentagon to also include the parts of the story related to the fear, trauma, confusion, and emotions of that day.
The discussion started with a dramatic reading of one of the chapters of the book focused inside the U.S. Military Air Traffic Control from 8:25am EST until 8:50am EST on September 11, 2001. The accounts are from personnel at the Air Traffic Control Boston Center in Nashua, NH as they began realizing that American Airlines Flight #11 was hijacked and that it was heard “we had more planes”.
Graff also highlights just how different our country was on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 from the end of that same day, and how 9/11 changed everything for our country for years to come.
He expands on the tremendous ways Americans supported the country in improvised ways — including one of the largest maritime evacuations of all time, the evacuation of lower Manhattan by any and all available boats in the area. Another example was how the FAA ordered and accomplished the grounding of the 4,500 planes in the air on 9/11; no matter its destination, to the closest available airport, and whether or not that location could accommodate the passengers.
The book attempts to provide a snapshot as to how random luck or fate was a matter of life or death for some people on 9/11. A chef who worked in the morning at a restaurant at the top the Twin Towers did not make it to work by his usual 8:30am because he was picking up new glass; a woman was laid off Monday, September 10th from a firm that was located in the Twin Towers, she collected her belongings and said good bye to colleagues, and was not at the office on 9/11; and some people switched their morning flights on to or off of one of the hijacked planes.
Human stories from that day have included the tremendous courage and sacrifice of first responders. Graff expands to other stories including how a paraplegic, who worked on the 63rd floor of one of the Twin Towers, was carried down all 63 floors and outside of the building by a combined team of 12 of his co-workers.