The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 [Book Review]

January 23, 2020

 The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff

The Only Plane in the Sky by Garret M. Graff

Genre/Categories: Nonfiction, U.S. History, Terrorism, New York City

*This post contains Amazon affiliate links.

My Summary:

We will always remember…

On September 11, 2001, America experienced a devastating attack that killed almost 3,000 innocent civilians and wounded over 25,000 others and caused at least 10 billion dollars of infrastructure and property damage. Garrett Graff tells the story of that day through the voices of those who lived it. From the early hours of September 11 to day’s end, we hear actual accounts from first responders, Twin Tower workers, family members, children, government officials, survivors, military…..a 360-degree picture of the tragic events. This is truly an “own voices” work.

My Thoughts:

Where were you on 9/11?

It’s challenging to review The Only Plane in the Sky because the reading experience is equally riveting, emotional, and difficult.

Structure: First, the structure is one of the most compelling and amazing aspects of the story because it is told in full by snippets of oral history collected from hundreds of people. It’s a perfect way to honor those who perished and it’s a privilege to hear first-hand accounts from those who survived. This is one example of a particularly poignant passage:

Mychal Judge’s body [New York City’s beloved fire captain] was the first one released from Ground Zero. His death certificate has the number “1” on the top.

James Hanlon, former firefighter, FDNY:
“The first official casualty of the attack.”

Craig Monahan, firefighter, Ladder 5, FDNY:
“I think he wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was as if he took the lead–all those angels right through heaven’s gates. That’s what it seemed like to us. If any of those guys were confused on the way up, he was there to ease the transiton from this life to the next.”

Emotional: Even though The Only Plane in the Sky is a compelling read, it is also emotional! I think we’re used to reading about events that took place before we were born, but reading about a major historical event that happened in our lifetime and that we may vividly remember is a significantly different reading experience. I found my anxiety rising with each paragraph, and I could read only one chapter at a time before needing to take a break. I remember thinking: “I hope no terrorists are reading this and using it as an opportunity to gloat or celebrate.”

Important Read: Although this is a difficult and emotional read, it’s an important one because of the amazing amount of details that are captured from that day……from the first responders to the government officials to the survivors to the families of the victims……so much occurred that wasn’t part of the newscasts of the day. Those that live on the other coast (like me) were deeply affected that day and many of us have connections to people who were directly involved. For example, I have a friend whose husband was working in the Pentagon that day. The stories of those who persevered provide an insider’s view of what really happened while we were helpless observers. It will fill you with the hope that during the direst and most horrific circumstances, we can unify and take care of each other.

Born after 9/11/01: Students currently entering college were not yet born on 9/11 or were too young for it to have left an imprint. I think it’s especially important for these young people to read a first-hand account of a national tragedy.

Always Remember: In addition to the horrific images displayed on TV, I remember the reporters who were scrambling to bring the news (on the street and in the studio) when they were in shock themselves. I remember images of survivors running down the street covered from head to toe in a thick layer of gray dust. I remember the deafening silence when I would lie down to sleep at night without the sounds of air traffic overhead (I live in an urban area and there is always a plane in the airspace heading to one of several nearby airports)…..and then that eerie silence was broken by hearing the distinct sound of a military fighter jet on patrol. I remember the Patriotism that spread from coast to coast. I remember the flags that appeared on buildings and street corners and were strategically placed in every front yard. I remember feeling horrified thinking about taking that exact flight from Boston to LA on a Tuesday morning three weeks earlier….unnerving! What is your most vivid memory from that day?

Recommended: I’m highly recommending The Only Plane in the Sky for readers who remember 9/11 and for those who don’t, for avid fans of narrative nonfiction, and for those who appreciate primary sources of historical events. If you read only one nonfiction book this year, I would urge you to choose The Only Plane in the Sky. I am amazed at how the author puts this together! I didn’t listen to the audio version, but I’ve heard reviews that it is great. We will always remember…

My Rating:  5 Stars


The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff (cover)

The Only Plane in the Sky Information

Meet the Author, Garrett M. Graff

Author, Garret M Graff

Garrett M. Graff, a distinguished magazine journalist, bestselling historian, and regular TV commentator, has spent more than a dozen years covering politics, technology, and national security—helping to explain where we’ve been and where we’re headed.

Today, he serves as the director of the Aspen Institute’s cybersecurity 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, which he helped lead to its first National Magazine Award, the industry’s highest honor.

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 counterterrorism 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.”

Previously, he was the founding editor of’s FishbowlDC (, a popular blog that covers the media and journalism in Washington, and co-founder of EchoDitto, Inc., a multi-million-dollar Washington, D.C.-based internet strategy consulting firm. During his time at FishbowlDC, he was the first blogger admitted to cover a White House press briefing in 2005, a moment considered significant enough that his reporter’s notebook from that first briefing is on display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. A Vermont native, he served as deputy national press secretary on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and, beginning in 1997, was then-Governor Dean’s first webmaster.

He taught at Georgetown University for seven years, including courses on journalism and technology, and his writing and commentary have appeared in publications like the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, New York, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Rolling Stone, 5280, Politico, AARP Magazine, Eater, Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine, USA Today, GQ UK, NextCity, and he has appeared on CBS This Morning, The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBC, the BBC, Al Jazeera English, the History Channel, National Geographic, and various NPR programs, including “This American Life,” “Fresh Air,” and “All Things Considered.”


Where were you on 9/11?

Have you read The Only Place in the Sky or is it on your TBR?


Winter 2019 TBR (updated)

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  1. I was on the treadmill in the Wellness Center. Two TVs showed the first plane. ABC said it’s a terrible accident ( or something similar), then the second plane hit (on CNN) and they all were in shock I don’t remember their exact words, but something to the effect that we were attacked. I will never forget that feeling of helplessness.
    We visited the 9/11 Memorial last fall. I will definitely read this book!

    • Visiting the Memorial would be heartbreaking and memorable 💔 I hope you get a chance to read this compelling account. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Amazing review of what sounds like an amazing book, Carol. I already have this on my TBR, but I think I will move it up now. I was at work and we were all called to the staff room at recess. My sister is a nurse and worked in Detroit and they all had to stay overnight as they were not allowing anyone to cross the border so she couldn’t leave and others could not get into work. It was an absolutely terrifying event for everyone, even those who lived further away. Thanks for sharing this one with us.

    • Thanks Carla! That day is seared into our memories. I felt the terror again as I was reading it! It affected so many people! It’s an amazing account of that day.

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