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Book Review – Touching History

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I think we all remember where we were and what we were doing when, on September 11, 2001, we first heard that a plane had slammed into the World Trade Center. It is one of those moments we will undoubtedly always remember, just as so many people have never forgotten where they were when they heard about the assassination of J.F.K.. They are seared forever into our memories. They are utterly unique moments in history. How could we ever forget?

While the story of what happened on that day has already been told in many books and in several movies, none of the accounts has told it from the perspective of the pilots of the 5000 planes that were in the skies that day or from the perspective of those on the ground who were responsible for the air-control and air-defense systems that controlled the skies over America. In Touching History Lynn Spencer tackles the story from this new perspective and in so doing writes a book that is both fascinating and riveting. A commercial pilot herself, she is well acquainted with the decisions and the responsibilities faced by pilots and controllers across the nation.

In an interesting literary decision, Spencer opted to write the book in the present tense rather than the more obvious past tense. This makes the book read less like history and more like current events. It transports the reader to the day itself, giving a moment-by-moment breakdown of the actions and decisions of the day. The book effectively takes the reader back to that day, stirring memories and evoking emotion perhaps long forgotten. Though the reader knows how the story ends, it makes the journey no less interesting.

Meticulously researched, the book actually makes some important corrections to the official 9/11 Commission Report and introduces some interesting new details to the account. Even those who have read other books on the subject will find new information here as the author deliberately covers some of the lesser-known drama. For example, she writes quite extensively about Delta flight 1989, an aircraft officials became convinced had also been hijacked. The plane was refused landing on the East Coast and was eventually forced to land in Cleveland where it sat for hours on the tarmac before a SWAT team finally approached and cleared the plane. She tells such stories from the perspective of those involved, not as abstract history but as personal narrative. She writes also of fighter pilots who, flying unarmed planes, were ready and willing to sacrifice their lives by crashing into hijacked airliners to save lives on the ground; she writes about air traffic controllers who were faced with almost unimaginable stress and the nearly-impossible task of, for the first time in history, grounding every plane in the country. Spencer has a knack for detail and for finding and describing interesting stories.

Touching History is a book that drew me in and wouldn’t let me go until I had finished the last page. In fact, I took concerted effort for me not to destroy a whole work day reading it. It is that good. Anyone who wants to have a better understanding of what transpired on September 11 will want to read this account.


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