Radio communication broke down. Commanders lost contact with their squads. Noise and dust confounded the senses. One paramedic likened it to being in an infantry unit overrun by enemy troops.
Yet, in the confusion at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, firefighters and emergency medical technicians improvised and kept working.
Without direction from superiors and no plan to guide their actions, they followed their instincts and extinguished blazes, triaged casualties and comforted the injured, at a time when they could have surrendered to panic.
More details of their rescue efforts that day have emerged in an archive of interviews and audiotapes released by the city Friday as a result of a court order.
Among the hundreds of pages of transcripts are scores of instances in which trained rescuers realized they were on their own.
Frank Pastor, an EMT who lost his helmet and his equipment running for his life as one of the towers collapsed, recalled finding himself in the lobby of a building surrounded by hundreds of survivors crying, "Help me! We can't breathe," in the cloud of dust.
"I'm looking around to see what I can do," he said. "I remember opening up this door. There was a slop sink. There was clothes hanging. I took the clothes and I started soaking the clothes, wetting them, started cutting out strips, giving it to kids, giving it to the mothers."
Firefighter Tiernach Cassidy dusted himself off after the second tower collapsed and found a command post.
"At first we started asking, 'What are we doing? What are we doing?' " he said. "Nobody really had a specific answer."
He salvaged rope and tools from parked emergency vehicles and began looking for ways into the mountain of rubble.
After hours of searching, he and a companion lowered themselves into a deep pit, where they found a pocket of trapped civilians, firefighters and a Port Authority police officer.
Cassidy described how he used his body as a bridge to help the dazed officer climb up to a girder and reach the surface.
"He gets up on my leg and then my shoulder, and he's up on the girder," Cassidy said. "He lies there on top of the girder and he gives me the biggest hug and he starts crying."
The failures of the day were apparent in the transcripts and radio calls, released as the result of a lawsuit by some of the victims' families and the New York Times.
Several city EMTs complained about their inability to communicate with the private ambulance corps. Some firefighters said they did not hear the evacuation order. Many described difficulty keeping in touch with commanders or members of their own units.
But the chaos did not stop rescuers from acting.
Fire Captain Bruce Lindahl recalled realizing, amid the confusion, that someone needed to put water on the Trade Center's smoldering remains.