09/11/2015 08:19 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2016

After September 11, Waiting for the Big One

Does everyone do this? Hearing that September 11 is coming up, do you think back to where you were when you heard the news? What you were doing, who you talked to first, how you worried about friends or family living anywhere in the vast metropolis of New York City.

I do. That day is also a reminder of my vow to never again be so unprepared for the possibility of disaster: I really understand now, at some deep level, that one can happen any time. I live in Seattle, which (for anyone who reads The New Yorker magazine) will be the site of the Big One, a truly massive earthquake, within the next 50 years. I get that now. September 11 made me realize that I could never again take anything in life for granted. It's all a gift -- for the day, but not for always.

I was in suburban Washington, D.C. for a meeting that terrifying Tuesday morning of 9/11. I had come from Seattle, and the three-hour time change had me moving about in a haze. The 8:30 a.m. breakfast of coffee and too-sweet pastries didn't seem to lure the late-sleepers, but there were 10 or 15 of us milling around, chatting about mundane things.

A few minutes before 9 o'clock the meeting facilitator stepped up to the podium and asked for our attention, looking strangely solemn. "There's been a huge disaster in New York at the World Trade Center this morning. We're going to wait a bit to get started," she told us.

Of course the meeting didn't ever happen. We crowded into the AV control room where a television set was tuned to live reporting of this mystifying "disaster." Everyone looked puzzled, but within minutes the confusion turned to horror as the second tower was struck. Later another explosion was reported that was much nearer us, at the Pentagon. Then came the most mystifying sight of all, as the South Tower collapsed in a matter of seconds, looking very much like the demolition of Seattle's Kingdome stadium that had fascinated onlookers just a year before.

By 10:30 it was clear that we would cancel the meeting, no one even suggesting that it would go on. I was staying with a friend who lived near the Capitol area in D.C., so I made my way outside with my small carry on bag to find transportation to her place. Taxis were whizzing by, but after a half an hour of trying to flag one down I gave up and made my way to the Metro, waited with an extremely anxious-appearing crowd, and finally arrived at the GWU stop near her condo. It was close enough to the Pentagon that the smell of smoke assaulted me as I moved off the long escalator onto the street.

Being with my friend was comforting, but I felt an intense need to go home. The announcement that all flights within the U.S. had been suspended made me feel I was in one of those nightmares where I'm stuck in quicksand, or mud and can't move. I needed to talk to my husband and 12-year-old daughter, but for much of that day nonstop dialing yielded only busy signals, particularly on the land line. When I finally heard our home phone ring through, the relief was short-lived. My daughter was hysterical. She had been watching the television accounts, again and again. She understood that all air travel had been cut off and was terrified that I would never make it home. Trying to comfort her, I could barely control my own fears about what crazy thing would happen next. More attacks? Nuclear war? I felt wretched, alone, and more vulnerable than I have ever felt before or since.

At the end of the first day, the battery for my cell phone was dead. I had planned on only a 3-day trip, and used the phone so little then that the need to recharge it seemed unlikely. Every day I spent hours on my friend's house phone, having the flight home rescheduled and then cancelled over and over. Every night, if I could get a call through to home, my daughter sobbed and I couldn't think of an honest way to tell her it would all be OK.

After four days I was finally able to get a flight to Seattle. As I hurried into Baltimore-Washington Airport, the kiosks and most of the departure gates were eerily deserted, the halls mostly empty, because only a few air routes had opened up by then. I sat waiting for the flight to load, every nerve in my body on alert, ready to leap up and flee at the first unexpected sound.

Then came a scream from the corridor nearby. Everyone jumped. Not far away a woman was kneeling beside someone collapsed on the floor, who turned out to be her mother, and was calling for help. Within moments I was part of an amazing team of several other waiting passengers who did the standard first-aid assessment and began cardiac resuscitation. Someone brought the portable defibrillator that had been hanging on a wall not far away. Attached to her chest, the machine read out an arrhythmia and a mechanical voice said something like "Shock now." Someone did it, did it again, and the woman slowly began to stir.

It seemed a miracle, after the week's events, that this one small catastrophe had been averted. But September 11 made it very clear, as nothing else ever has, of our relative helplessness when a real disaster strikes. I'm incredibly fortunate to live in the U.S. where for over a hundred years we haven't had the terror of war on our soil, the kind that Syrians and many others are enduring today. But other kinds of cataclysms are out there, waiting to happen. Like earthquakes.

I always carry my cell phone charger when I travel now, though I also remind myself my a deeply-held superstition that the things I worry about a lot won't actually happen. It's worth a try.