MICHAEL MORELL: Garrett, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It’s great to have you on the show. GARRETT GRAFF: It’s exciting to talk to you, Michael. MICHAEL MORELL: So you just published a new book. It was just released yesterday. It’s called, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11. It’s an amazing read, and I’m thrilled to have you on the show to talk about it. GARRETT GRAFF: Thanks. You have your own fascinating story wrapped up in this one. MICHAEL MORELL: I do, which is kind of interesting from an interviewing perspective. Maybe the place to begin is by having you tell the listeners about the book. What’s the story, and how do you tell it? GARRETT GRAFF: Sure. So as you know, because I talked to you for that piece three years ago, I published a piece for the 15th anniversary of 9/11 about being aboard Air Force One with the president on 9/11 and spoke to 28 of the people who were around and with the president that day.
It ran in Politico magazine for the 15th anniversary. And of course, you were one of them, as the CIA’s presidential briefer on that fateful day in Sarasota, Florida. And the reaction to that piece three years ago was just instant and overwhelming. It became the most read piece in the history of Politico. And I started to hear from all of these readers all over the country and eventually all over the world.
And one of the reader reactions that stood out to me was a letter that I got from a young soldier. I think he was in the Army. He’d done three tours overseas, two in Afghanistan, one in Iraq. And he wrote about how he had been in middle school on 9/11, and that he had served overseas and never understood, he said, the trauma that the nation experienced until he read my article.
And that was just such a fascinating and poignant reaction to me. The idea that we had at that point soldiers and service men and women who really didn’t remember the reason that they were fighting overseas. And that inspired me to turn that original piece into this full book. Which, as you said, just came out, The Only Plane in the Sky, that traces the whole national experience, or as much of it as I could tell, through the perspectives of what are ultimately 480 people coast to coast, morning to night, in Shanksville, in New York City, in Washington, at the Pentagon, aboard Air Force One, on Capitol Hill, as well as the air traffic controllers and the fighter pilots and passengers and pilots aboard airliners that day.
And the goal of the book is to try to capture what the national experience was like at 9/11. You know, this is a particularly interesting and momentous anniversary this year, because we are seeing this shift nationally of 9/11 from memory to history. That this is the first anniversary we have a college class starting this fall that is made up of people who were born after 9/11.
You have, as we’ve been saying, service men and women now deploying in 2019 to Iraq and Afghanistan who were born after 9/11. And actually this year, the first FDNY recruits who were born after the day that 343 of those firefighters were killed, began applying to join the fire service. And, you know, every year on 9/11, we say “never forget.” But I think we actually are beginning to forget, in that we are sort of boiling 9/11 down to the facts of the day.
The four planes, the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and Shanksville, without necessarily remembering just what the day was like for those of who experienced it. Me, you know, as a regular citizen that day. You, as someone in the center of government. MICHAEL MORELL: Garrett, why did you choose to write the book in the voice of those 480 people that you interviewed, rather than taking what they told you and putting it into your own narrative? GARRETT GRAFF: I think in many ways, we know the story of 9/11 very well at this point. And we’ve seen some great books that have been written in sort of a traditional narrative fashion about 9/11. We’ve seen something like the 9/11 Commission spend millions of dollars and years of effort creating incredibly detailed and accurate tick-tocks of how the day unfolded.
But what I think that that misses, and what I think our history was missing was really understanding what it was like to be someone living through 9/11. That when you tried to take this out of the words of the people who lived it and try to write it as history, in some ways it seems too neat and clean.
And I think that one of the things that’s hard to capture but that is captured in an oral history format is both how innocent America was at 8:46 in the morning and how confusing the day was for those who were living it. That, you know, when we look back now on 9/11, we know the whole thing took place in 102 minutes.
We know that by 10:29, the day was effectively over. All four planes had crashed. Both towers had fallen. That was the end of the day. You didn’t know that aboard Air Force One that day. You know, one of the things that really comes through is, you know, 3:00– 4:00 that afternoon people were still worried about the second attack, the other shoe dropping. You know, they’re still evacuating buildings across the country for fear that there are other planes coming.
And that really, up until about 3:15 that afternoon, there were still commercial airliners in the sky that America worried was hijacked. And that those are sort of the parts of the day that we forget when we look back. You know, to me the most interesting moment of the day comes between 8:46 in the morning and 9:03, the first crash and the second crash. Because we now know that that first crash was the beginning of the 9/11 plot.
No one knew that on the morning of 9/11. And there’s this incredibly odd moment, those 17 minutes where America sort of looks at that crash and in some ways shrugs and says, “Oh, that’s sort of weird,” like, must be a problem in air traffic control, or maybe the pilot had a heart attack.
You know, Bob Mueller, the FBI director who had just taken office the week before, he’s sitting in his office in the FBI headquarters in New York. He looks out the window. He sees blue sky, and he says, “Huh, I wonder how a plane managed to hit the World Trade Center on such a beautiful day.” And that, one of the voices that I tell in the book that I found sort of especially striking was a ferry captain in New York Harbor who saw that first plane crash, continued around the tip of Lower Manhattan, docked his ferry. And every single one of the commuters on board got off and went to work in Lower Manhattan.
There wasn’t a single person on that boat who saw that crash and was, like, “You know what? This seems weird. I’m just going to turn around and go home for the day.” And that you see sort of just how innocent America was that morning. MICHAEL MORELL: In those moments. GARRETT GRAFF: In those moments. And that’s actually something hard to capture for the country now, because we have a country now, you saw the video over the summer of the motorcycle backfiring in Times Square and everyone runs for their lives. And, we now default to terrorism or a shooting incident in our society today until proven otherwise. And that was not what America was on 9/11. MICHAEL MORELL: Garrett, I think I told you this in an email, but I found the book to be absolutely fascinating, a page turner. But I also found it to be intense. Shivers down my spine, tears in my eyes. And while I never wanted to put the book down, I found that I had to put it down from time to time to catch my breath, my psychological breath, so to speak. And I’m wondering from that perspective, the intensity of the stories that you tell through the voices of others, how did you find it writing the book? GARRETT GRAFF: Oh. Looking back obviously — this is an incredibly dumb thing to say — I really underestimated how emotional the writing of this book was going to be. I had done that original piece for the 15th anniversary about being aboard Air Force One. And that was an intense piece to write and research, but not one that sort of made me break down and cry as a writer.
Working on this book last summer when I was sort of doing the meat of the drafting of the book, you know, I was crying almost every single day. And it is an intense book. It was an intense day. And recapturing the human spirit of that day really I think is striking. And in some ways, as emotional as it is, as scary as that day was, I think one of the things — and I’d be curious if you sort of had this impression reading the book — the book actually has more hope in it than I thought it might. That you sort of see the strength and the resilience of the people living through it. You see these stories of, you know, strangers helping strangers, coworkers helping coworkers. And that on America’s worst day, you see some of what– MICHAEL MORELL: Absolutely. GARRETT GRAFF: –makes America best. I mean, one of the things, not to sort of get too political for a moment. There’s this incredibly moving passage in the book that made me cry the first time I read it, of a woman working for the City of Arlington, who was fielding telephone calls of people calling to volunteer to come help at the rescue site at the Pentagon.
And she was Hispanic, and she was talking about how she was fielding all of these calls from undocumented immigrants calling to ask if they could come help at the Pentagon and saying, you know, “I may not be a citizen, but this is my country, and I want to come help. Can I?” And the book I think is sort of filled with those little moments where you just realize just how tremendously wonderful the human spirit can be. MICHAEL MORELL: So Garrett, I’d love to capture a little of the surrealism and the horrific nature of the day, some of the tragic stories by asking you to actually read several of the entries. I think that would be terrific for my listeners. And maybe the first one is the moment of impact of flight 11 into the North Tower.
I’m wondering if you could read the entry on page 36 by Richard Eichen. In fact, if you could read both of those paragraphs. And I should tell people that you and I are working off a slightly different version of the book than they are going to have in front of them when they purchase it. So if you try to match up page numbers, it’s not going to work so well. But if you can read that entry, that would be great. GARRETT GRAFF: Yeah. Richard Eichen, Consultant, Pass Consulting Group, North Tower, 90th floor. “I saw off my left shoulder an Asian man coming toward me. He looked like he had been deep fried. He had his arms out, and his skin was hanging like seaweed. He was begging me to help him. He said, ‘Help me, help me,’ and then did a face plant right between my legs. He died between my legs.”
“I looked down, and that’s when I saw my own shirt was full of blood. I didn’t know before that I had been hurt. You could smell fuel. I had no idea what had happened. I could see in the elevator shaft floor-to-ceiling flames. It looked like a shower curtain shimmering. It’s funny the things you do in the situation. I put my bagel down in the entranceway and said, ‘I have to remember when it’s over, I have to pick up the bagel and throw it away.'” MICHAEL MORELL: So Garrett, maybe we could do another one which I found remarkable. On the street after the first plane hit, it’s page 51. It’s Dr. Charles Hirsch, Chief Medical Examiner, City of New York. “I will never forget seeing an airplane engine in the middle of West Street and then an amputated hand next to it.” MICHAEL MORELL: And then one that really caught my attention because I worked with the Secret Service for so many years. It’s in the White House after the two attacks in New York. Could you read the entry by Ann Reufield (PH) on page 85? GARRETT GRAFF: Ann Reufield (PH), Special Agent, U.S. Secret Service. “We were fairly confident that the plane was going to hit us. The supervisor in the Secret Service’s Joint Operation Center basically said, “Anybody who survives the impact will go to an alternate center and will continue. It wasn’t a joke.” MICHAEL MORELL: I mean, what’s amazing about that to me is, these people doing their job, right, thought they were going to get hit, but were still going about their job and not running away. It’s really remarkable. GARRETT GRAFF: Yeah. If I can interject with another quote from that same section. Christine Limerick, Housekeeper at the White House. “The look on the faces of the Secret Service agents who were told they had to stay. I will never forget that, because we at least had the opportunity to flee.” MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. And then another one that really caught my attention was the first people on the scene at Shanksville, you know, were not first responders, were not law enforcement, were not firefighters. So this is the crash site of Flight 93 of course. If you could read the entries from Douglas Miller, Bobby Blair, and then Douglas Miller again. It’s the bottom of page 199, top of page 200. GARRETT GRAFF: Yeah, and I’m glad you selected this passage, because the rescue in Shanksville, or the response effort in Shanksville I thought was to me one of the most surprising stories that I discovered as I was researching and writing this book.
I think it’s something that gets overshadowed with the drama of the World Trade Center and the prevalence of the news media in both Washington and New York. But the Shanksville story of these, you know, citizens and volunteer firefighters who are the ones who end up out at the scene I thought was just really striking. Douglas Miller, Coal Driver, James F. Barron Trucking. “We turned in and immediately made a right, which took us to the crash scene within 30 yards. There was nobody else there at the time.” Bobby Blair, Truck Driver, James F. Barron Trucking. “The trees were on fire.” Douglas Miller, “The heat, I assumed it was from the jet fuel, was so intense I had to remark to Bob, ‘Hey, we better back up,’ because I thought it would blister the paint on my hood. You could feel the heat through the windows.”
Bobby Blair: “We had taken our fire extinguishers, and we knocked the fire out that was blowing across the field pretty quick. There was a large tire laying right out there at the hole. It was still burning. We both tried to knock it out, but as soon as we quit spraying, it started right back up.” MICHAEL MORELL: So Garrett, in addition to the surreal, I learned some things that I had never known before. And I was on Air Force One that day. I was a senior member of the intelligence community. I’ve read almost everything that’s ever been written. And I’d love to get you to just chat about a couple of those. The first is the prologue of the book, which is about the International Space Station. And I did not know that story. Could you share that? GARRETT GRAFF: Yeah. So the book opens with an interview with Frank Culbertson who was a NASA astronaut and was the one American off the planet Earth on 9/11. And it’s about him witnessing 9/11 from the International Space Station and how going over North America, he actually was able to look down and caught the moment of the collapse of one of the towers and saw that dust field spreading across lower Manhattan and then out over the ocean.
And how, for the rest of the day, the Space Station — every 90 minutes as it came around, he would sort of look down at the country and see what had transpired since. The next time they came around, the Pentagon had been hit. The time after that, you began to see the airplane contrails that normally crisscross the United States disappear, as all of the planes were grounded.
And he says that basically he from space watched until there was only one airplane contrail left across the central United States, and that was by the end of the day Air Force One heading back to Washington, D.C. with President Bush. MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. Remarkable story. Another one that caught my attention that I did not know was that the fighter jets that were on mission to intercept Flight 93 as it was approaching Washington D.C. actually did not have any weapons. So they would not have been able to shoot it down, if ordered to do so. And they had thought about that, and they had thought about how they would bring it down if they had to. Can you talk about that? GARRETT GRAFF: Yeah. And this is sort of part of, you know, just the incredible story of 9/11, is the military’s response as it tried to improvise with what assets it had available on 9/11. I mean, this was, you know, this was 2001. And this was sort of still the military was operating with a Cold War mentality, thinking about threats coming from outside the United States.
And there just weren’t that many fighter jets that we were able to get into the air quickly. And in fact, the first that were scrambled around Washington out of Langley Air Force Base, they didn’t know what they were being scrambled for. And they defaulted to their Cold War training and flew straight out to the Atlantic thinking that they were looking for Russian bombers coming in.
And so it ended up being that the first fighters that were scrambled into the air to intercept what we now know was United 93 were two fighters from the D.C. Air National Guard from Andrews Air Force Base. And it was Marc Sasseville and Heather Penney were the two pilots that morning.
And they were scrambled into the air with no weapons aboard. And that they understood as they were taking off that they were basically being sent out on a kamikaze mission. That if they were able to meet and intercept the incoming hijacked flight, the one tool that they had available to them was to crash their own aircraft into it. And so Marc Sasseville and Heather Penney, you know, as they’re scrambling are shouting back and forth to one another, you know, “I’ll aim for the cockpit, you aim for the tail,” in just sort of this unfathomable level of duty and sacrifice in that moment as they’re taking off. MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. Amazing heroism– GARRETT GRAFF: What they didn’t know at that time of course was that the passengers aboard Flight 93, the passengers and crew had already actually stormed the cockpit and caused the plane to crash in Shanksville before the fighter jets ever made it into the air. MICHAEL MORELL: Garrett, you know, probably the most significant thing that struck me was the sounds that people talked about of the collapse of the towers. You know, we all saw them collapse either at the moment that they did or years later, right, in various places on TV and in museums. But I never heard anyone talk about the sounds before. And so perhaps you could read from pages 147 and 148 from Dan Nigro to Gregory Fried. GARRETT GRAFF: Dan Nigro, Chief of Operations, FDNY. “No one has heard a high-rise building collapse before, but as soon as I heard it, I knew what it was.” Donna Jensen (PH), resident, Battery City Park. “It was this rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat, this snapping sound in perfect rhythm, this loud, cracking, snapping sound.”
John Cartier, brother of James Cartier, electrician working in the South Tower. “At first it was a faint sound, and then it came closer and closer.” Captain Sean Crowley, NYPD, “We were talking to NYPD officer Glen Pettit, when we heard a rumble.” John Cartier, “The sound was so deafening.” Michelle Cartier, sister, Lehman Brothers, North Tower, “This high-pitched sound, I didn’t know what it was, but it was so eerie, like your fingernails on a chalkboard type of thing.”
Bruno Dellinger (PH), North Tower, “I heard a sound that today I cannot remember. It was so powerful, such a huge sound that I blocked it. It scared me to death. I blocked it, and I cannot bring it back up to consciousness.” Howard Lutnick, CEO, Cantor Fitzgerald, “The loudest sound I’ve ever heard.” Gregory Fried, Executive Chief Surgeon, NYPD, “I can’t even give you an analogy.” MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, it’s remarkable. You know, some of the first responders who were trapped in the rubble of the South Tower and escaped were actually then trapped in the rubble of the North Tower and escaped. And I found that to be a remarkable story as well. I did not know that. GARRETT GRAFF: Yeah. And part of I think what is so incredible when you go back and you sort of look at 9/11 was realizing sort of this very weird quirk of the day where people were either killed instantly or they survived. And that both in New York and in Arlington at the Pentagon, people prepared for sort of mass casualties in a way that they just didn’t appear.
I have a chapter in the book that’s people at the hospitals in New York that sort of waited all day for this flood of injured that just never materialized. And in the Pentagon, there wasn’t actually a single person rescued after the first hour. And that sort of if you made it out of the building in the first couple of minutes, you lived. And that it was sort of over very quickly in both New York and at the Pentagon. MICHAEL MORELL: So Garrett, let me ask you two overarching questions.
The first is about people’s memories that day. So the book offers a large number of perspectives on the same events, right? And you would think that people would have very different perspectives, that people would see things differently. But I found great uniformity, great consistency in how people saw things. Did that strike you as well? GARRETT GRAFF: Yeah. And in some ways I think it’s indicative of just how firmly that day is burned into all of our memories as we experienced it. And, you know, when I was interviewing you and the 27 other people who were around you that day aboard Air Force One, your stories all lined up.
You sort of all had the same general experiences. And those memories are crystal clear for so many people who lived through that day, you know, even today 18 years later. I have an incredibly boring 9/11 story. I was eating breakfast at college, and I can still tell you, you know, the precise chair in the dining hall that I was sitting in when I first heard about the attack.
I was far less tuned into the world than you were that day, and I can remember exactly where I was standing when I first saw the photo of Osama bin Laden on the TV. Because I was so confused. I couldn’t figure out how everyone was so sure that this person that I had never heard of was the person who was behind the attack. You know, how could we not know who our enemy was? And, of course, you and many other people in the intelligence community had been involved in that and chasing him for a while at that point. But for the ordinary American, this was just an absolute, literal, out of the blue surprise. MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. And I could tell you every detail of my day. You know, it would take three or four hours, but it is as you said etched, deeply, in my memory. The second thing I wanted to ask you is about your own perspective on that day. Did writing the book change your perspective of 9/11 in any way? GARRETT GRAFF: I think for me, again, I was surprised at how many of the little details of that day I didn’t know. And I’ll give you sort of one very to me impactful one that just sort of helped me understand an experience that I had no understanding of. I had no idea that the fire sprinklers were going in the World Trade Center and in the stairwells.
And so as people were evacuating from the towers, they’re soaking wet from the sprinklers. And actually when they reached the bottom of those stairwells, they’re wading through, you know, shin-deep, knee-deep water that had accumulated at the bottom, as it had been flowing down from the sprinklers. And, you know, just again that sort of sensory experience. You know, you talked about it with the sounds of the collapse. You know, we remember the facts of the day without I think remembering the sensory experience that so many of us lived. MICHAEL MORELL: Garrett, you’ve been terrific with your time. I just want to ask you to share two more stories from your book with our listeners, because I find them so motivating. The first is, 9/11 at sea. It’s something that people don’t think about, but I have a friend who actually was involved in the story you’re about ready to tell. And if you could share that with us, that would be terrific. GARRETT GRAFF: Yeah. So I tried to capture the perspective of people, you know, even far away from the attack zones. And one of the people that I interviewed was Sandy Winnefeld, who was the commander of the air craft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise on 9/11. And his ship in the carrier battle group were on their way home from the Middle East on the day of 9/11.
They were sort of beginning a transit down the Coast of Africa on their way back to the United States. And they, like the rest of us, watched 9/11 unfold on television. And Sandy Winnefeld literally changed the course of the carrier. I mean, he literally turned the carrier around and started steaming for the Coast of Pakistan, knowing and sort of anticipating where things would be going next in America’s response. And so, within actually just hours, the U.S.S. Enterprise and the first aircraft carrier was poised off the Coast of Pakistan ready to launch a response. MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. And then the other is Father Mychal Judge. Talk about him. GARRETT GRAFF: Father Mychal Judge, listeners probably would recognize the photo of his body being carried from the rubble of the towers in New York. He was this larger than life chaplain for the New York Fire Department and was beloved in the department, was known by, you know, all of the city’s power brokers.
And I have this chapter just about him and his day and his background and people talking about their memories of interacting with him. And he was there on the scene within minutes. He was, as far as we know, the only priest to enter the towers that day. And gave last rites to the first New York City firefighter who was killed that day, before the towers fell. And who was on the plaza and was actually hit by a body that was falling from the towers.
And then, Mychal Judge himself was killed in the collapse. And he was carried out of the rubble by a group of rescuers, brought to one of the churches near ground zero there, where his body was laid at the altar. And he became officially in New York City, casualty 0001 of the World Trade Center, as his death certificate proclaimed.
And there’s this quote in the book about one of the other firefighters says, “I don’t think Father Judge would have had it any other way. He wanted to be the first to get to heaven, to welcome everyone else who was coming that day.” MICHAEL MORELL: Remarkable. The book is, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11. The author is Garrett Graff. Garrett, you’ve written an amazing book. The best book I’ve seen on 9/11. It is a must read, I was going to say for people interested in national security. But quite frankly, it’s a must read for everyone. Thanks for being with us. GARRETT GRAFF: Thanks so much for having me, Michael. * * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *