Lucinda Robb worked for 15 years for the Teaching Company and is working on a book about the suffrage movement.

How do you say something new about the single most-witnessed event in the history of the world? Hundreds of millions of people watched the tragedy of the twin towers unfold in real time, and even more saw it on seemingly endless replay for days. So it is all the more remarkable what Garrett M. Graff manages to accomplish with “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11.” Stitched together with first-person accounts, he crafts an incredibly evocative and compelling re-creation of the day, with just words and the barest handful of photographs.

Graff conducted hundreds of interviews and culled even more from more than 2,000 oral histories. Rather than telling the stories one after the other, like a horrific version of Groundhog Day, he breaks up the accounts chronologically and by location. The chapters run from minutes to hours, and at times feel like a real-time Twitter feed of 9/11. This allows you to experience this fateful day in an intimately visceral fashion, starting with the ordinary (the sky was gorgeously blue) and progressing to confusion, fear, numbness and grief.

To help the reader keep things straight, one font is used for quotes from survivors and another for recordings. Graff’s usually spare background information is italicized. The first time you encounter a person, you get a brief description, usually a job title and perhaps the floor they were on. You will probably flip back and forth trying to find the page where a certain individual entered the narrative. With more than 500 people featured, it is hard to keep track of them all.

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There are recollections from President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but they are part of a much larger ensemble rather than the featured stars. Most of the narratives are contained in one or two chapters, but some begin in the morning and thread their way through to the last hours, as if holding the entire day together. As they recall the various people they encountered or passed on the stairwell, you find yourself wondering how many of them will live.

Eyewitness accounts are all that remain of some final moments, in places that no longer exist. Crawling through rubble in rooms laid waste by explosions, reeking of jet fuel and smoke, often without electricity (and sometimes flooded ankle-deep by water from sprinklers), those lucky enough to have stumbled in the right direction lived to tell their stories. One phrase repeated again and again, especially by first responders, is how they lived by turning one way, and how those they were next to turned the other way and died.

All too often, those who insisted on evacuating early and leading survivors to safety, like Rick Rescorla, vice president of security at Morgan Stanley, died in the process. Again and again, firefighters who knew better than most what their chances were walked up the long stairs with heavy packs, never to be heard from again. Capt. Paddy Brown’s last communication was to refuse a direct order to evacuate, because he would not leave his injured men behind.

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Under incredible duress, with no time for reflection, ordinary Americans rose to the occasion. Pentagon personnel rushed back into the burning building when they heard their office mates screaming. Ten office workers carried their quadriplegic colleague down 69 flights in a specially designed chair. At the Battery and nearby piers, a makeshift, largely civilian fleet organized an impromptu water evacuation of between 300,000 and 500,000 people, larger than Dunkirk. Even far from the devastation, residents of “pretty bad neighborhoods” brought out hoses so dust-covered refugees walking home could have something to drink.

Today, when even middle-schoolers have smartphones, it is shocking to read how poor the communication technology was at the time. Ironically, it was the president and his scattered staff, hustled off unwillingly to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and then Offutt, outside Omaha, who knew the least. You can feel Bush’s frustration at being forcibly diverted away from Washington by the Secret Service. On Air Force One, miles up in the air, unable to watch TV and with limited communication, he existed in a painful limbo. Leaders of Congress, whisked away to Mount Weather in Berryville, Va., 80 minutes outside Washington, fared little better. Literally millions of Americans watching CNN knew more than they did. At one point Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), flying with the president, called his wife to say that he was safe but that he wasn’t allowed to tell her where he was. She replied: “Oh, I thought you were in Barksdale? That’s what I saw on TV.” That was exactly where he was.

The extent to which America was unprepared is particularly evident in the chapter about the two F-16 National Guard pilots hastily enlisted to shoot down United Flight 93. As they wrestle with the implications of firing on a civilian aircraft, the pilots soberly recount their orders to divebomb it Kamikaze style if their effort to shoot it down failed. They had no missiles on the planes, just a few rounds of regular lead bullets. It was clear that they took off expecting that their mission might be a suicide mission. While they made their hasty battle plan (one was to fly into the tail, the other into toward the cockpit), there was no mention of a fact that would have most shocked veterans from another era: One of the pilots was a woman.

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Heartbreakingly, “the lucky of the unlucky” had the time to realize they were likely to die and the ability to call those they loved. On planes and on the highest floors, they reached out to spouses and family members to say a final goodbye. Most of their conversations are remembered rather than recorded. At 9:30 a.m., Sean Rooney called his wife from the 98th floor of the South Tower, spending his last moments alive remembering their happy times together. She could hear the glass break and the difficulty he had breathing because of the heat. In the end, as the smoke got thicker, he kept whispering “I love you” over and over. She asked him if he was in pain, and he paused, and said no. “He loved me enough to lie.”

There are a few instances where you wish for a little more information. A dramatic nighttime rescue ends with one man painstakingly unearthed but no word on his colleague entombed near him. Thank goodness you can look it up on the Internet. In the chapter on the 9/11 generation, some of the recollections from children around the country seem superfluous. But these are small quibbles.

By letting those who were present tell stories in their own words, Graff has created a remarkably effective and deeply moving history. Be careful if you read this book in public — at some point you may encounter a story or detail that will bring back memories that overwhelm you. For those born after 9/11, no spoiler alerts are needed; even they are aware of the unparalleled devastation. But what may surprise them in our current polarized state is how united we once were as a nation: not blue states and red states, but Americans.

THE ONLY PLANE IN
THE SKY

An Oral History of 9/11

By Garrett M. Graff

Avid Reader. 483 pp. $30

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