As he climbed down the hole of twisted steel and burning rubble, Scott Strauss was certain he would not make it out alive. His thoughts drifted to his wife and kids. In his mind he was saying goodbye. Strauss, who at the time was a New York City police officer assigned to the Emergency Service Unit, and a team of other responders dug 10, 20, 30 feet to try to save two fellow officers pinned under the fallen World Trade Center on that fateful September day 10 years ago.

Three hours later, Strauss emerged with one of the officers. Five hours later, the second officer was saved. Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin were the 18th and 19th people — out of 20 — rescued from the ruins.

Five blocks away, at New York Downtown Hospital, Antonio Dajer, M.D., and his colleagues hurriedly prepared the ED. The 12 patients from the night before were moved upstairs. Triage stations were set up. Then Dajer stood at the doors … waiting. "There was an odd moment for two minutes or so when no one came," he recalls. "Then a wall of humanity rushed in."

But the hospital wasn't just a refuge for those fleeing the disaster, it was part of the disaster. Power, water and communication systems all were damaged. While Dajer was outside triaging patients, a tidal wave of smoke and debris enveloped the hospital.

"You couldn't see your hand in front of your face," he says. Dajer and his staff didn't panic. They'd conducted a disaster drill just two months earlier, which prepared them for crowd control — though, he admits, nothing of this magnitude.

Susan Waltman's phone rang within five minutes of the first plane crash. The executive vice president and general counsel of the Greater New York Hospital Association was told to get someone down to the city's emergency operations center. GNYHA sits on the emergency management team and coordinates activities directly with first responders and other officials. But the operations center was at ground zero. Thankfully, the staff person was redirected to a makeshift headquarters before the final collapse. Over the next several hours and days, GNYHA helped marshal patients and resources to hospitals throughout the area.

Strauss, Dajer and Waltman all played very different roles in the rescue operation, but one commonality weaves through each of their stories: the importance of communication, collaboration and action. Knowing the people you have to depend on and planning together is absolutely critical, Waltman says. Having that level of trust allows you to make adjustments on the fly, which is crucial because no disaster ever plays out like the planning scenario.

"It doesn't matter what the incident is," adds Strauss, now corporate director of security and emergency management at North Shore–Long Island Jewish Health System. "Hurricanes, floods, tornadoes. Your hazard plan should be your hazard plan. And don't be afraid to make decisions. You can always change course, but it is very tough to play catch-up."