New Oral History of 9/11, From the Voices Inside the White House Bunker to What Was Said On United 93

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A former Politico editor, Garrett M. Graff, has a new oral history of 9/11 coming out on Tuesday, “The Only Plane in the Sky” and here are a couple of excerpts.

The President was on board Air Force One. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice learned about the incident in real time during her daily briefing. The Vice President was in charge in the White House’s underground bunker built for use during a nuclear attack.

The Transportation Secretary, Norm Mineta, was tracking planes in the air on a 55″ television screen and with a note pad.

The Vice President, on giving the order to shoot down a civilian airliner, United flight 93:

Dick Cheney: It had to be done. Once the plane became hijacked—even if it had a load of passengers on board who, obviously, weren’t part of any hijacking attempt—having seen what had happened in New York and the Pentagon, you really didn’t have any choice. It wasn’t a close call.

The pilot who scrambled her jet without any missiles on board, on a suicide mission to take out the plane:

Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney: We would be ramming the aircraft. We didn’t have [missiles] on board to shoot the airplane down. As we were putting on our flight gear in the life support shop, Sass looked at me and said, “I’ll ram the cockpit.” I made the decision I would take the tail off the aircraft.

…Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney: I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off. If we did it right, this would be it.

The Boeing 757-200 Which Later Operated as United Flight 93, Taxiing on 9/8/11, credit MacMax via Wikimedia Commons

The situation was a first as Commander Anthony Barnes explains: “never before had we given permission to shoot down a commercial airliner.” The U.S. shot down Iran Air 655 but that was a mistake, wasn’t inside the U.S., and didn’t have American citizens on board.

Scrambling fighter jets when planes go silent, or incidents occur on board, has become far more common. No matter what cover stories are offered about ‘escorting the plane’ or ‘peeking inside the cockpit’ the primary purpose is to prepare to shoot down the jet.

On 9/11 there was a clear calculus: the World Trade Center had been taken down, a plane hit the Pentagon, another was headed to the U.S. Capitol and it was expected to kill far more people than were on board the aircraft.

However the precedent of 9/11, and the change in how the country thinks about national security and the security state, has made it far more thinkable.

The military didn’t have to use its authority to shoot down United 93, and Lieutenant Penney didn’t have to take her kamikaze dive at the aircraft’s tail, because the passengers on board took matters into their own hands. One passenger reached 911 from the lavatory using a cell phone. Other passengers used the Airfones on board to call loved ones.

Deena Burnett, wife of Tom Burnett, passenger, United Flight 93: It was silent, and I could feel my heart racing. [On the phone with me,] Tom said, “We’re waiting until we’re over a rural area. We’re going to take back the airplane.” I became very frightened and I begged, “No, no, Tom. Just sit down, be still, be quiet, and don’t draw attention to yourself.” He said, “No, Deena. If they’re going to crash this plane, we’re going to have to do something.”

I asked, “What about the authorities?” He said, “We can’t wait for the authorities. I don’t know what they can do anyway. It’s up to us.” He said, “I think we can do it.” Neither of us said anything for a few seconds. Then I said, “What do you want me to do? What can I do?” “Pray, Deena, just pray.” “I am praying. I love you.” Tom said, “Don’t worry. We’re going to do something,” then he hung up. He never called back.

Passenger Todd Beamer: “Ok. Let’s roll.”

The cockpit voice recorder has a man in Arabic saying “Cut off the oxygen. Cut off the oxygen. Cut off the oxygen. Cut off the oxygen.” And as United flight 93 is crashed into an abandoned coal mine in Pennsylvania, nine times in Arabic, “Allah is the greatest.”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] The first news I heard came in the form of an email. It wasn’t on the newswires yet but I received an email from an industry list I was a part of. I still remember the subject line, “Terrorists are bombing us with airplanes.” I thought it was a joke. News was quickly coming in, much of it wrong, speculating on the aircraft types and that there could have been an accident (especially after only one plane had hit). We now know much more about what was happening in the air. […]


  1. Thanks for letting us know, otherwise I might have missed it. I put in a pre-order. Hard to believe it has been 18 years.

  2. “They had been in the air longer than other flights, having departed San Francisco heading for Newark.”

    No, they were flying from Newark to San Francisco. And I believe all four flights were transcons, not sure why they were in the air longer.

  3. @Jim
    Thanks for pointing that out. I didn’t think that was correct. I believe the reason they were all transcons was because they would all be loaded with fuel and created a stronger explosion.

    Although I was still living on the east coast, I was on an extended assignment in Phoenix and was living in a hotel room at the time. As usual when I woke up I flipped on the local sports station and heard something about the horrific events and that Sky Harbor was closed. I flipped on the tv thinking there was an accident at the airport only to see one of the towers collapsed.

    Very strange and sad times that has changed how people live to this day.

  4. I have a terrible memory but that day will be seared in my mind forever. It’s appalling what we choose to do to ourselves, how unkind and cruel we can be. My heart aches for all the innocents who suffer at the hands of terror, tyranny, and cruelty.

  5. “The Boeing 757-200 Which Later Operated as United Flight 93, Taxiing on 9/8/11, credit MacMax via Wikimedia Commons”

    Do you mean 9/8/2001?

  6. “They had been in the air longer than other flights, having departed San Francisco heading for Newark.”
    Sounds like how Donald Trump would describe it.

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