This past Sunday marked the twenty-first anniversary of the September 11th attacks which claimed the lives of 2,996 people. The mood in New York City was somber, with rain and dark clouds all day. However, that did not stop anyone from remembering the tragedies on September 11, 2001, a day that changed America. Friends are always surprised to learn that I have never visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. As a New Yorker who was in Manhattan on the day of the attacks, and watched the events unfold from an office window, I will always have my memories of that sad day. But my reluctance to visit the museum has never prevented me from reading and hearing stories from people who were at the World Trade Center and survived. Undoubtedly, there are survivors who have never told their stories, choosing not to re-live the events of that day. Thousands of others did go on the record and their words have been preserved so that the history of 9/11 can continue to be told to future generations. Author Garrett M. Graff has compiled hundreds of statements from survivors, Bush Administration officials, NYC officials, military personnel and first responders, and has turned them into this oral history of the attacks.
Because the book is an oral history, there is no standard narration. The author does provide relevant information when needed but otherwise, the speakers tell us what happened as the day progressed. They range from former President George W. Bush to office workers at the World Trade Center complex. To be clear, Bush does not give an interview but what is included are snippets from the speeches he gave to the country on the evening of the attacks. Readers may feel that the approach is disjointed at first because the statements provided by the speakers are short but also long enough to give you relevant information. And the format works beautifully because it allows them to add small pieces to the bigger picture. And what emerges are unbelievable stories of luck, courage, heartbreak, and fate. You will experience a range of emotions and in the epilogue, the author discloses that even he became emotional while authoring the book. But he pressed forward, and the result is a masterpiece that belongs in the vast archive of materials about the 9/11 attacks.
Readers will notice that there are four stories in the book, one for each phase of the attacks that morning. They began in New York when the North Tower was struck at 8:46 a.m. At first, it was thought that a horrible accident had taken place but when a plane struck the South Tower, it was clear that America was under attack. Surprisingly, the response to the threats did not move at the speed at which one would hope. In fact, the confusion and chaos within America’s air defense network is clear in the book. Fighter pilots were forced to take flight in time spans they would never see under normal conditions. And what the pilots reveal about how prepared they were, and the reality of confronting Flight 93 will give you chills.
There are no smoking guns in the stories and the alleged hijackers are rarely mentioned but there is a wealth of information in the book about what took place behind the scenes within the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the hijacked airliners and Air Force One which found itself the only plane in the sky as officials shut down America’s air space. As I read the book, I noted that the sobering reality of that day is that no one imagined that type of scenario. Former New York Fire Department Commissioner Thomas Van Essen, who watched the deaths of hundreds of firefighters, first responders and civilians has stated that “nothing could have ever really prepared us for what happened—or how fast the events would unfold“. All hell broke loose in Manhattan and the horrors of the battle to survive at the World Trade Center as told by the survivors is haunting. I felt chills reading of the last moments from trapped workers on floor about the crash location and the breakdown in communication that could have saved lives. At the helm was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his statements also show how chaotic the day had become. 9/11 was a day that no one thought could ever happen but there were warnings that something was brewing and that an Islamic fundamentalist had America in his crosshairs.
Prior to the attacks of 9/11, the name Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011) was unknown to the public. But there were officials in Washington who knew of him and his plan to destroy America. The author does not explore whether Bin Laden was guilty and how planning was executed or any connections between the alleged suspects. He leaves that to the speakers who do state that they believed Bin Laden was behind the attacks. Aboard Air Force One, President Bush was briefed throughout the day and the former administration officials who appear in the book clarify any theories about his alleged “strange behavior” that day. The main concern was always Bush’s safety due to the belief that the president himself was a target. Action was swift and the Secret Service was taking any chances. The cabinet’s departure from Florida and decision to land at Barksdale Air Force Base are revisited in vivid detail and the suspense unfolds like Hollywood but this is what happened, and there was no script that day. People had jobs to be done and they went into action to the best of their abilities. The number of heroes in the book is staggering and chance encounters proved to be a matter of life or death.
The day after 9/11 I remember the feeling in New York City that what had transpired the day before could not have been real. It felt as if we were trapped in a horrible nightmare that would not end. We wanted to go back to Monday September 10 and keep that day going instead. But as weeks turned into months and crews continued with the cleanup of debris and identification of remains, the dark and unsettling truth that America was not immune to attack became clear. The country had changed, and the threat of terror became the number one priority. Children coming of age today will only know the attacks through multimedia but for older generations, 9/11 remains vividly clear. And we have authors such as Garrett M. Graff to thank for the books that preserve the history of the attacks that impacted the United States and the world. This oral history of that day is a treasure and a literary work that is a gift that keeps on giving.