Review of “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11”

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Everyone in my generation has their story of where they were on 9/11. And it seems to be one of the rare topics of conversation that elicits both one’s undivided attention and a sense of visceral empathy. More than any other single event I can think of, we want to hear what someone else’s experience is, and we want to share our own.

In “The Only Plane in the Sky,” Garrett Graff recounts the “Where were you” stories from hundreds of first responders, survivors, air traffic controllers, family members, politicians, journalists, military personnel, schoolchildren, and bystanders. He then organizes them chronologically and geographically, skipping back and forth between Manhattan, Arlington, Shanksville, Air Force One, and even the International Space Station. The result is a nearly minute by minute account of that flawless, terrible day. If you are looking for interpretation, this isn’t the book for you. This is the first draft of history before even the journalists got to it. It is raw, emotional, uplifting, and sad all at the same time, and for me, it was nearly un-put-down-able.

The audiobook is excellent, utilizing a cast of nearly forty voice actors, as well as archival audio of cockpit conversations with air traffic control, presidential speeches, and live journalism. When it comes to voicemails between victims and their family members, however, the audiobook mercifully does not provide the actual recordings. Personally, I am grateful for that modicum of discretion. What is there is devastating enough.

The Only Plane in the Sky is a powerful experience for anyone that lived through that day, and is essential reading for anyone that did not. It is a book that will stay with me for awhile.

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Day 103: When The Foundations are Shaken (1 Samuel 18-20; Psalm 11, 59)

“For look, the wicked bend their bows; they set their arrows against the strings to shoot from the shadows at the upright in heart. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Psalm 11:2-3, NIV

For several years I’ve tried to maintain the discipline of reading through the Psalms each month, doing it the way Billy Graham did: on the first day of the month, reading Psalms 1, 31, 61, 91, and 121; and so on throughout the month. YouVersion has a plan organized this way, which also adds in a chapter of Proverbs each day for good measure. You can access it by clicking here.

Which means, on the 11th day of every month, I read Psalm 11.

September 11, 2001 was the worst 11th day. All of us can remember where we were and what we were thinking when we saw the towers of the World Trade Center fall. I remembered my reading from that morning: “the wicked shoot from the shadows at the upright in heart. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

The wickedness of men shakes us to our foundations. All that David had built his life on—devotion to God; loyalty to King Saul, confidence that character would be recognized and courage would be honored— all of that must have felt like it was unsteady beneath his feet when Saul shot at him from the shadows. What could the righteous do?

When we feel rocked to our foundations we can read the rest of the Psalm.

“The Lord is in His holy temple, and His eyes see” (v 5). God sees: He is omniscient.

“The Lord will rain coals on the wicked—fire and sulfur” (v 6; and yes, I admit this comforted me on 9/11). God is just: He will not let the guilty go unpunished.

“The Lord is righteous; He loves righteous deeds” (v 7). God is good: I can trust His character.

David wrote this Psalm at a time when his own foundations were rocked. He had lived his life uprightly before both God and Saul. What could the righteous do? For David the answer was to ret on what you know about God when there is so much you don’t know about everything else.

Whether the ground feels unsteady because of world events or personal tragedy, we can take comfort in these same words. The psalmist has been there. He knows the feeling of the ground shifting beneath one’s feet. But he also knows that steadying one’s gaze on the righteous Lord can also steady the shaking, calm one’s steps, and firm up one’s footing.  

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