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The Only Plane in the Sky

An Oral History of 9/11

by Garrett M. Graff

Hardcover, 483 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $30 |


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

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Book Summary

A panoramic oral history of the September 11 attacks draws on hundreds of interviews with government officials, first responders, survivors, friends and family members to recount events from the perspectives of firsthand witnesses. 125,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: The Only Plane In The Sky

The Only Plane in the Sky

Aboard the International Space Station

On August 12, 2001, NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson arrived at the International Space Station aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. He would live and work aboard the Space Station for 125 days. On September 11, 2001, he was the only American off the planet.

Commander Frank Culbertson, astronaut, NASA: On September the 11th, 2001, I called the ground, and my flight surgeon Steve Hart came on. I said, “Hey Steve, how’s it going?” He said, “Well, Frank, we’re not having a very good day down here on Earth.” He began to describe to me what was happening in New York—the airplanes flown into the World Trade Center, another airplane flown into the Pentagon. He said, “We just lost another airplane somewhere in Pennsylvania. We don’t know where or what’s happening.”

I looked at the laptop that has our world map on it, and I saw that we were coming across southern Canada. In a minute we were going to be over New England. I raced around, found a video camera and a window facing in the right direction.

About 400 miles away from New York City, I could clearly see the city. It was a perfect weather day all over the United States, and the only activity I could see was this big black column of smoke coming out of New York City, out over Long Island, and over the Atlantic. As I zoomed in with a video camera, I saw this big gray blob basically enveloping the southern part of Manhattan. I was seeing the second tower come down. I assumed tens of thousands of people were being hurt or killed. It was horrible to see my country under attack.

We had 90 minutes to set up for the next pass across the United States. We set up every camera we could. I said, “Guys, we’re gonna take pictures of everything we can see as we come across the U.S.” An hour and a half later, we crossed Chicago. I was looking all around for any evidence of further attacks. I could see all the way to Houston. In a few minutes, we crossed Washington, D.C., directly over the Pentagon. I could look straight down and see the gash on the side of it. I could see the lights of the rescue vehicles, the smoke of the fires. Looking north, I could clearly see New York City and the column of smoke.

Every orbit, we kept trying to see more of what was happening. One of the most startling effects was that within about two orbits, all the contrails normally crisscrossing the United States had disappeared because they had grounded all the airplanes and there was nobody else flying in U.S. airspace except for one airplane that was leaving a contrail from the central U.S. toward Washington. That was Air Force One heading back to D.C. with President Bush.