9/11: ‘We’re the Only Plane in the Sky’

This is, without doubt, my favorite picture of President George W. Bush on September 11, 2001, taken as Air Force One flew from Florida to Washington, D.C. (Photo by Eric Draper/George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.)

On September 9, 2016, on the 15th anniversary of the deadly 9/11 attacks from 2001, reporter Garrett M. Graff with Politico Magazine published an oral history of the events of that fateful day.

Graff wrote, “This oral history, based on more than 40 hours of original interviews with more than two dozen of the passengers, crew and press aboard—including many who have never spoken publicly about what they witnessed that day—traces the story of how an untested president, a sidearm-carrying general, top aides, the Secret Service and the Cipro-wielding White House physician, as well as five reporters, four radio operators, three pilots, two congressmen and a stenographer responded to 9/11.”

It is one of the most historically accurate and riveting pieces of writing about the terrorism attacks that took place eight months after George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States. In those hours when airplanes piloted by terrorists flew into buildings and crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside, Bush became a wartime president, a legacy that would shape both terms of his presidency.

Graff opened his narrative:

Nearly every American above a certain age remembers precisely where they were on September 11, 2001. But for a tiny handful of people, those memories touch American presidential history. Shortly after the attacks began, the most powerful man in the world, who had been informed of the World Trade Center explosions in a Florida classroom, was escorted to a runway and sent to the safest place his handlers could think of: the open sky.

For the next eight hours, with American airspace completely cleared of jets, a single blue-and-white Boeing 747, tail number 29000—filled with about 65 passengers, crew and press, and the 43rd president, George W. Bush, as well as 70 box lunches and 25 pounds of bananas—traversed the eastern United States. On board, President Bush and his aides argued about two competing interests—the need to return to Washington and reassure a nation and the competing need to protect the commander in chief. All the while, he and his staff grappled with the aftermath of the worst attack on American soil in their lifetimes, making crucial decisions with only flickering information about the attacks unfolding below. Bush struggled even to contact his family and to reach Vice President Dick Cheney in the White House bunker.

The story of those remarkable hours—and the thoughts and emotions of those aboard—isolated eight miles above America, escorted by three F-16 fighters, flying just below the speed of sound, has never been comprehensively told.

Karen Hughes, Andy Card, Karl Rove, Ari Fleischer, other White House staff … reporters, security detail, military personnel — those who were touched by the events are heard from in this account.

A year after it was published, the read is still as breath-taking.

Read ‘We’re the Only Plane in the Sky’ by Garrett M. Graff (September 9, 2016).


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