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18 years after September 11th, an oral history that recalls the details

For everyone old enough to remember September 11th, 2001, their experience of that catastrophic day is seared into memory. But details of what the victims, survivors and emergency responders endured have faded from national consciousness over time. Now, a powerful oral history from Garrett Graff, “The Only Plane in the Sky,” offers a lasting reminder of that pivotal moment in American history.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Everyone alive at the time remembers where they were on September 11, 2001.

    While the events of the day are seared into our nation's collective memory, details of what the victims, survivors and emergency responders experienced have faded over time.

    But a powerful new book, "The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11," seeks to serve as a reminder to future generations of that moment in time that forever changed America.

    And the author, Garrett Graff, joins me here now.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Garrett Graff:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, we call you the author. You worked with your colleague Jenny Pachucki in gathering many of these stories, but it's an oral history. It's a compilation of people's memories of that day.

    A lot of them have been told before. So, I'm curious, even in putting this together now, did you discover new details from that day?

  • Garrett Graff:

    Yes, it was a day that was so dramatic, and it was so hard for us to wrap our minds around that day, that, as I explored the stories through this book, the book totals 480 Americans coast to coast, morning to night, I was amazed at sort of some of the stories that I had sort of heard about over the years, but largely overlooked.

    I mean, it was a day that was so hard for us to understand in real time that even, with 18 years, it's hard to capture in a single volume.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Eighteen years later, why do you think this kind of storytelling matters, going back into the details of all those events that day?

  • Garrett Graff:

    Yes, I actually think that's the most important way to tell the story now, which is, this is the 18th anniversary now.

    And so you have American service men and women who were born after 9/11 being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight the wars spawned by 9/11, even though they actually have no emotional connection or understanding of that day.

    And so my goal with this book was to tell 9/11, not the facts of the day, which are all familiar to us. But what we lose as time goes on is the fear and the chaos and the confusion of what it was like to live that day.

    We now know when we tell the 9/11 story when the attacks began and when they ended. And that's — for those of us who sort of lived that day, none of us knew that at the time. We didn't know when the attacks began. We didn't know when the attacks were over.

    And the fear and the confusion of that day was similar for everyone in America, whether you were a school child or the president of the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And the details that people remember from that day, it's just — it's so powerful, the way they're unpacked here.

    I want to pull out a couple of examples, because there are voices of several first responders in particular woven throughout the entire story. We know the bravery they showed that day. But what you have revealed in here is what they were thinking in that moment of chaos.

    There's one quote from there from Captain Jay Jonas of the Fire Department of New York, as he's awaiting orders in the North Tower's ground floor lobby.

    And he says this. He says: "One of the firemen from Rescue 1 looked up and said, 'We may not live through today.' We looked at him and we looked at each other, and we said, 'You're right.' We took the time to shake each other's hands and wish each other good luck."

    This idea of the fear and the uncertainty, that's woven throughout the entire story, throughout all the voices you talked to.

  • Garrett Graff:

    Absolutely.

    And one of the things that really I worked to capture that day, because they were parts of the stories that jumped out at me looking back, was the sensory experience of 9/11.

    I mean, we all remember the sights of that day. We all watched that day unfold in real time on TV, I mean, some of us for much of the day. What we never knew, what we have forgotten are the tastes of the day, the sounds of the day, the smells of the day.

    I mean, every one of the volunteer firefighters who responds to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the crash of Flight 93 talks about what the smell of that crash — it sort of sticks with them.

    The firefighters and the first responders in Lower Manhattan talk about what the taste of the dust from the collapse felt like in their mouth. I mean, one of the firefighters describes it as like having a wool sock in your mouth.

    And then, of course, the thing that we sort of all remember from across the country is the profound quiet that settles over the country in the course of that afternoon, as schools let out early, businesses close, and all of the planes are grounded.

    And, suddenly, you walk outside and you realize that you don't hear any planes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In some of those moments, too, people reveal in their retelling incredibly intimate moments, their last moments with their loved ones in some cases.

    There's one story that you feature from a woman named Beverly Eckert, who's on the phone with her husband, Sean Rooney, who is trapped in the South Tower above the 98th floor. And she's sharing this story in such painful detail. She writes: "I could tell it was getting harder for him to breathe. I asked if it hurt. He paused for a moment. And then he said, 'No.' He loved me enough to lie. As the smoke got thicker, he kept whispering, 'I love you,' over and over."

    She shares the moment then too when she hears him gasp as the floor fell out from underneath him. She says: "I called his name in the phone over and over."

    Did it surprise you that people were willing to share these incredibly painful, intimate moments in this way?

  • Garrett Graff:

    It's actually remarkable. The book is a mix of my own original interviews and then some incredible archival work done by places like the 9/11 Memorial StoryCorps, which is where Beverly Eckert's story comes from, the Flight 93 National Memorial, the Pentagon Historian's Office, that had the good sense that these were stories that needed to be preserved for history and went out in the months and years after 9/11 to capture these stories.

    And the experience that I had interviewing a couple of hundred people for this book myself is, every single person wanted to talk. Every single person that I approached, as a stranger asking them to tell about the worst day of their lives, was excited to share their story, as painful as it was, that they wanted to make sure it was remembered.

    And the way that people — the perspective that people sort of brought to their experience — I tell the story, one of the main characters in the book, Will Jimeno, the Port Authority police officer who is actually trapped under the collapse of both towers.

    He's one of only two people that day to be rescued from underneath the towers. But when he goes out and speaks to groups today, he talks about: Look, I had 220 floors of the Twin Towers fall on me. We all have our World Trade Centers in our lives. We all have the challenges that we think are insurmountable. And it's about sort of how you react as a human that determines the path of your life.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There is this idea of luck, that whether or not you lived or died that day was almost arbitrary.

    Was that something people shared with you over and over?

  • Garrett Graff:

    It was — it was the theme, perhaps more than anything, that stood out to me as I was working on this book, was the way that the random life decisions, the types of things that we make 1,000 times a day without thinking, ended up literally determining life or death that day.

    Michael Lomonaco, the chef at Windows on the World in the North Tower, would have been normally at his kitchen by 8:30 that Tuesday morning, except, that day, of all days, he decided to stop and get a new pair of glasses at LensCrafters in the basement of the World Trade Center, and missed the last elevator up to the top. And 72 of his colleagues died, and he didn't.

    Joseph Lott, another one of the stories that I tell, was supposed to be attending a conference at Windows on the World that day. And at breakfast in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel at the base of the World Trade Center that day, one of his colleagues who was headed to the conference too gave him a new tie that she had bought on vacation and thought he would like.

    And he is like: "This is a really nice gift. I'm going to go back to my hotel room and change shirts, so that I can wear this tie to the conference that day."

    And he goes back to his room, changes his shirt. His colleagues go on to the conference. And he lived, and they didn't.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Garrett Graff, the book is a stunning compilation of some incredibly powerful stories.

    The book is "The Only Plane in the Sky."

    Garrett Graff, thanks very much.

  • Garrett Graff:

    Thanks for sharing the stories.

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