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Tifton man recounts 9/11 from inside the Pentagon

ARLINGTON, Va. -- For John Tibbetts of Tifton, the early morning of September 11, 2001, started out as the picture of normalcy.

A lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, Tibbetts and his wife Jeannie -- also a lieutenant colonel -- both had offices at the Pentagon.

Their work space was far apart in the world's largest office complex, but they often met in the mornings to share breakfast before getting to work protecting the nation's security interests.

That's exactly what they were doing on 9/11 when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

"I guess like everyone else, we were watching it on TV and were kind of scratching our heads saying,"that's weird, I wonder how that could've happened,' and everyone was speculating about how the plane could've accidentally crashed on a clear September day" Tibbetts said.

"And then we saw the second plane hit and I remember thinking when that happened...this wasn't an accident."

Tibbetts then left his wife's office for his department -- a secured set of offices two floors beneath the Pentagon.

Assigned to the Army's readiness staff, Tibbetts' job was to make help make sure U.S. Army units around the world were properly equipped to carry out their missions.

Tibbetts said the Department of Defense was in the midst of a massive 10-year rehabilitation project on the 70-year-old building in 2001.

"So we're used to hearing construction noises," Tibbetts said. "They were renovating the section right next to us. I remember hearing what I would describe as the sound of a dumpster being dropped outside of your building; just a noticeable thud, but nothing we'd consider really out of the ordinary."

Hundreds of yards and two stories above him, American Airlines Flight 77 had struck the Pentagon in an area of the building where the construction project had just recently been completed -- a fact Tibbetts believed saved lives.

Seconds later, the phone in Tibbetts' office rings.

It's Major Ted Johnson -- a subordinate of Tibbetts' who is in his apartment near the Pentagon.

"He's frantic. 'I just saw a plane crash into the building!' he said. Now Ted was always a bit of a jokester and I remember thinking, 'this is just really in poor taste given what is going on in New York, but I just went with it," Tibbetts said.

"'Alright, I'll check on it,' I told him...just kind of dismissing him, you know? And about that time the fire alarms started going off," Tibbetts said. "So with the planes in New York, the fire alarms, and the call from Ted, something clicked and I knew this was all somehow connected."

Minutes later, Tibbetts' boss came running down the hall and confirmed what Tibbetts' had already surmised - an airliner had struck the building.

"At that point, I turned around, went back into the office area and told the civilians to put away any classified material as they had been trained to do, and to calmly leave the building," Tibbetts said. "The rest of us started to stand up a crisis action team, which was kind of a secondary mission for my unit."

Because of the Posse Comitatus Act -- a law passed by Congress in 1878 which bars the military from any organized operation of police, fire and emergency medical services on non-federal property -- U.S. military units largely took a back seat to local civilian law enforcement for the operations in New York and Washington, D.C., but informally, military personnel worked search and rescue in and around the crash site at the Pentagon.

Tibbetts said that the Crisis Action Team stayed active for 90 days following the attacks, during which time they helped the Army prepare to "open for business," when anti-Taliban combat operations began in Afghanistan.

Tibbetts would later learn that several friends had been injured in the attack.

A classmate of his at West Point had been working in a conference room that was connected the office where Flight 77 made contact with the building. Miraculously, Tibbetts said his friend survived after 45 minutes of climbing through the wreckage.

A decade later, Tibbetts believes the United States has largely taken the correct approach in its pursuit of those responsible.

"We just got Bin Laden, that's some nice closure, and we got his number two this week, so it's good to know we've kept the pressure on," Tibbetts said. "I think we got sidetracked in Iraq and never should've been there, but I think that there is a lesson in 9-11 for the world. That, no matter how hard you hit us, we'll track you down to the ends of the earth and hunt you like that dogs that you are."

And looking towards the future, Tibbetts says that the ultimate "victory" America can gain from systematically dismantling Al-Quaeda and recovering from the events of Sept. 11, will be to return to some sense of normalcy.

"There's really nothing to celebrate in 9/11. I've had a hard time even commemorating it. It was nothing less than an atrocity for those who lost loved ones that day and thousands of others who have been killed or injured since that day," Tibbetts said.

"No, I don't think we'll ever be truly able to say we beat the terrorists until we're able to restore some sense of normalcy...I'm not saying relax our vigilance, but get back to where life is normal again."