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Author who penned first ever oral history of 9/11 admits he 'cried almost every day' compiling it

10 Sep 2019 Daily Mail Online

Many of us remember where we were when the first United Airlines plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Others are too young to recall the confusion followed by sheer horror at the realisation of what happened in New York that day between 8:46am and 9:03am.

The attack by the Islamic group al-Qaeda, which killed nearly 3,000 people and injured more than 6,000 more, shocked the world and to this day remains the deadliest terrorist atroscity committed on American soil.

Journalist Garrett M. Grath has spent much of his career covering the ramifications, consequences and decisions that grew out of the country's response to 9/11, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to its impact on national security and the US government's Doomsday plans. 

The World Trade Center South Tower (left) burst into flames after being struck by hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 as the North Tower burned following an earlier attack by a hijacked airliner in New York City on September 11, 2001 

But his new book, The Only Plane in the Sky, focuses on the men and women who experienced first-hand the unprecedented drama of that terrible day.

It's the first ever comprehensive oral history of people who were directly affected by the tragedy - from the ticket agents who unknowingly ushered terrorists onto the flights, to the first responders at the Twin Towers and their terrified family members.

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Speaking to FEMAIL, Garrett said seeing 9/11 through the lens of others 'forever changed my understanding of that day'. 

'This probably sounds dumb in hindsight, but I was really unprepared for how emotional the writing of this book would be,' he admitted. 

'I cried almost every day when I was drafting the book last summer, poring over these intimate stories of the worst day imaginable.

Journalist Garrett M. Grath has spent much of his career covering the ramifications, consequences and decisions that grew out of the country's response to 9/11. His new book, The Only Plane in the Sky, focuses on the men and women who experienced first-hand the unprecedented drama of that terrible day

'Stories of the loss of loved ones on 9/11— parents losing children, children losing parents, siblings, the last telephone calls from the hijacked planes or those trapped above the attacks in the World Trade Center. Those stories are just heartbreaking.'

Garrett added he was also struck by the inspirational way ordinary people 'stepped up' across the country to help - from rescuing colleagues and strangers at the attack sites to volunteers rushing in to assist. 

'In the book, Ileana Mayorga, who worked for a volunteer agency in Arlington, Virginia, where the Pentagon is located, talked about how undocumented immigrants started to call and ask to help,' he recalled.

'She explains how suddenly the phones were ringing and saying, "This is the country that we chose to come [to]. Nobody will destroy our country." 

The attack by the Islamic group al-Qaeda, which killed nearly 3,000 people and injured more than 6,000 more, shocked the world and to this day remains the deadliest terrorist atroscity committed on American soil. Pictured: hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 (left) flies toward the World Trade Center twin towers shortly before slamming into the South Tower (right)

Garrett added he was also struck by the inspirational way ordinary people 'stepped up' across the country to help - from rescuing colleagues and strangers at the attack sites to volunteers rushing in to assist. Pictured: the wreckage of the Twin Towers days after the attack

'They would say, "I'm not legal in the United States. Do you think they will accept me to do volunteer work?" Especially given the political environment today, I thought that was so inspirational.'

The book was born out of an article Garrett wrote in 2016, which was published on the POLITICO website to mark the 15th anniversary of the tragedy.

Extract from The Only Plane in the Sky: The First Plane 

Richard Eichen, consultant, Pass Consulting Group, North Tower, 90th floor: I said, 'Okay, I better figure out how badly I'm hurt.' 

I felt that my face was all bloody. The left side of my head was open, and I could put my hand in there - I could feel my skull. I could actually feel the bone.

It stung but it didn't really hurt, cause I think I was in shock. Then I said, 'Okay, I've got to do something here.'

Harry Waizer, tax counsel, Cantor Fitzgerald, North Tower: I did not have a clue how badly I was hurt. I thought, I have to get downstairs, I have to get to the lobby, and I have to get help.

As I was walking down, I caught a glimpse of my arm and saw a blackened flap of skin hanging down. It was almost matter-of-fact, telling myself, 'Okay, you don't want to look at that again, just look at the feet, look at the steps, keep walking. 

The piece, entitled 'We're the Only Plane in the Sky', was an oral history of the experience of those with President Bush on Air Force One on September 11, 2001.

It went viral, shared more than two million times and quickly becoming the magazine's most read article of all time, and has since been optioned as a movie for MGM Studios.

It was the 'overwhelming' response that encouraged Garrett to delve deeper and gain an idea of what what it was like to live through the day.

'That first day it published, a Friday, dozens of readers began to send me their own stories and memories of that day, then it was scores, then by the end of the weekend, hundreds,' Garrett recalled.

'I heard from people across the United States, naturally, but also from readers from every continent but Antarctica, from readers in Spain, Poland, Egypt, Russia, Thailand, Korea, and Australia, among other places.

'I ended up spending days doing interviews on the piece, including 20 minutes on Radio New Zealand, never contemplating until then what 9/11 was like for those in the Pacific, for whom 9/11 was actually 9/12 - that when they awoke, all of this tragedy had unfolded overnight, the attacks, the collapse, everything.

'Similarly, I'd never imagined how the events might have struck someone far removed in a country like Poland - how the attack on us felt like an attack on them.'

He told how two reactions from readers stuck in his mind in particular - one from a mother, a veteran, who wrote to him explaining she had two children, aged seven and nine, and had printed out the article and set it aside so that when her children were old enough to read it, she could explain 'why Mommy went off to war'.

The Only Plane in the Sky was born out of an article Garrett wrote in 2016, which was published on the POLITICO website to mark the 15th anniversary of the tragedy. Pictured: the New York skyline before 9/11, featuring the Twin Towers

Another young veteran of three deployments - two to Afghanistan, one to Iraq - wrote to tell Garrett he'd only been in middle school on 9/11, and had fought in the two wars that day spawned without ever fully grasping the trauma the nation felt on 9/11. 

'I was dumbfounded; what must it be like to be one of the servicemen or women fighting overseas today who has no memory of September 11th itself?' Garrett told FEMAIL.

Extract from The Only Plane in the Sky: The Second Plane

Joe Graziano, firefighter, Ladder 13, FDNY: We got on a truck and it seemed like the city opened up for us. We got down there in no time. There were six of us, and I was the only one who came back.

John Napolitano, a father: I knew my son [firefighter Lt. John P. Napolitano] was with a rescue company and that he's probably be going in. I wanted to tell him, 'Don't be a hero.' After several attempts trying to get through to him - busy, busy, busy - I called my house to see if my wife spoke to my son.

I said, 'The phone's busy, and I want to tell him don't take any chances if he's going to go down there.' My wife was crying and said, 'He's already there.' 

John P. Napolitano, 33, was a husband and father to two young daughters. He died during the 9/11 rescue effort.  

'The totality of that reader reaction, and the idea of helping current and future generations understand this day, led me to expand that article into this book. 

Garrett worked for two years with oral historian Jenny Pachucki, who works at the 9/11 Museum in New York and has dedicated her career to stories of the attack.

Together they collated around 5,000 relevant oral histories collected and archived around the country over the past 17 years, listening to and reading them closely to identify the voices and memories that now feature in the book.

Garrett said compiling it made him realise how much we actually don't remember about 9/11 — or how much we mis-remember. 

'We don't remember—and many of us never knew in the first place—what it was like to go down the stairs in the Trade Center,' he explained.

'We don't know what it was like to stand on the plaza outside and realize people were jumping. 

'We don't know what it was like to feel the rumble of the Towers' collapse, to pry the loose concrete from our mouths, to search for people we didn't know whether we would find. 

'We don't remember how scary it was to see smoke rising from the Pentagon, the center of our military, nor the fear in the faces fleeing the White House or Capitol Hill. 

'We don't remember the profound silence that had settled over America by that afternoon, as all of the nation's aircraft were grounded, as schools and businesses were let out early, and the country convened around television sets from coast to coast. 

Retired Fire Chief Joseph Curry barks orders to rescue teams as they clear through debris that was once the World Trade Center September 14, 2001 in New York City

The Woolworth building peers between two bending steel barriers which once served as the walls of the North Tower

'Yet beyond the sights, the smells, the sounds, there are larger lessons too about that day. Most of all, we forget how innocent the U.S. — and the world really — was on September 10th.'

Garrett said he received around 200 memories of that day directly, many of whom he met with, and was also struck by how many friends, work colleagues and acquaintances came to him with their stories after hearing he was working on it. 

'Sometimes they were remarkably intimate and heartbreaking experiences that I'd had no inkling about, despite knowing some of these people for years,' he recalled.

Extract from The Only Plane in the Sky: The First Plane

Detective Steven Stefanakos, Emergency Service Unit, Truck 10, NYPD: You could imagine the madness of the scene.

Det. Sgt. Joe Blozis, crime scene investigtor, NYPD: There were thousands of people running. The fright was etched in their faces.

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. 

Alan Reiss, director of the World Trade Center, Port Authority: A detective, Richie Paugh, and I went out onto the Plaza. We saw the gash in the Tower and people jumping. 

It really wasn't safe to be out there, but we see a wheel of a plane, and this detective said: 'That's evidence. We have to take it back with us.' 

I said, 'Are you crazy?' Richie said, 'No, that's it,' and drags this thing back into the Port Authority police desk. 

'All told, The Only Plane in the Sky is based on 480 oral histories. It was hard because we were trying to distill and connect numerous stories into a single narrative — so there are all sorts of important details, amazing stories, and critical insights I didn't have room to include.  

'I'm sure another author could sit down with the same giant pile of oral histories and create another amazing book that didn't have a single overlapping quotation.'

Garrett added it was an incredibly humbling experience to hear people's stories and he never failed to be struck by the long ramifications of the attack and how it altered people's lives forever.

He said: 'Will Jimeno, one of the two Port Authority police officers rescued after being trapped beneath the fallen towers, had a long, difficult road back — he knows he'll never "beat" post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the perspective he has on life and the gift he understands he's been given. 

'He and his sergeant, John McLoughlin, were literally the only two people to be rescued from under the Twin Towers. He had 220 stories of the World Trade Center fall literally on top of him, and he lived to tell about it, and today he speaks to classes, the military, inmates, and even addicts about overcoming life's obstacles. 

'He says, "We all have our World Trade Centers. It's about how you handle the crises of your life that matters".'

Garrett said the most fascinating moment to him came on September 11 between 8:46am and 9:03am - the time between when American Airlines Flight 11 crashes into the North Tower and when United Airlines Flight 175 crashes into the South Tower. 

Garrett admitted he was surprised - and heartened - by the collective willingness of people to share and relive their trauma. Pictured: a flower at the monument for the 9/11 attack victims at Ground Zero in New York

'America looked at that first crash and shrugged,' Garrett said. 'I quote one of the New York harbor ferry captains that day, Peter Johansen, saying that his passengers all thought there was an innocent explanation for the crash.

'He said: 'Honestly, I think most people felt it was a navigation accident. The reason I say that is our ferry continued around to Pier 11, the Wall Street terminal, and there were about a hundred people on board. Every single one of them got off and went to work that morning. As they're walking off, there are envelopes and letters floating down from the sky."

The Only Plane in the Sky is published on September 10, 2019

'The people in the South Tower stayed at their desks. People in Manhattan continued their commutes. America's innocence didn't end at 8:46, it ended at 9:03. 

'Today, of course, you hear a motorcycle backfire in Times Square or a helicopter crashes atop a building in New York, and everyone defaults to an attack until proven otherwise.'  

Garrett admitted he was surprised - and heartened - by the collective willingness of people to share and relive their trauma. 

'Everyone I sought to interview over two years jumped to participate, even as a stranger contacted them out of the blue and asked them to discuss, in depth and at length, the worst day of their life,' he said. 

'Even reading the stories recorded by others often felt at times overwhelmingly heartrending and intimate. I cannot fathom the pain, physical or emotional, so many of them experienced that day and after. 

'Together, I think their strength is a testament and inspiration to the resiliency of the human spirit. As we say about 9/11, we must never forget.'

The Only Plane in the Sky will be published in hardback by Monoray on September 10 2019. 

Original Link: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-7428759/Author-penned-oral-history-9-11-admits-cried-day-compiling-it.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490&ito=1490

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