Sandy's Most Delicate Rescue Was Fertility Clinic's Embryos

PHOTO: Human eggs
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Among all the rescues carried out during the chaos caused by Sandy, the most delicate was the mission to save embryos in rows of incubators that were in jeopardy when the NYU Fertility Center lost its power.

The Manhattan clinic lost power shortly after Sandy struck Monday night. A generator perched atop the 8-story building kept incubators running through the night, but flooding in the basement cut off its fuel supply.

"The generator ran out of gas around 8:15 Tuesday morning," said Dr. James Grifo, the clinic's director.

Watch more on this story on "20/20" TONIGHT at 10 ET

Without power, the incubators housing delicate embryos at womb-temperature for in vitro fertilization began to cool. But Grifo and his team took action, hoisting five-gallon cans of diesel fuel up darkened stairwells to feed the failing generator.

"It was really a privilege to be part of that," Grifo said of his staff's "heroic" efforts.

The fuel bought the team enough time to transfer the embryos into liquid nitrogen, where they can be stored indefinitely.

The embryos were secured as another urgent issue arose.

At 10 a.m., a patient arrived for an egg retrieval -- a surgical procedure timed down to the hour after a two-week run of expensive fertility drugs.

Grifo loaded the woman into his car, along with her husband and their baby, and rushed them to a colleague's clinic uptown.

"It's amazing what people can do when everyone's on the same page," Grifo said, adding that the rest of the clinic's patients were booked into clinics throughout the city to "salvage" their cycles.

"It's a testament to the people in New York who work in medicine," he added. "Some of our most vicious competitors offered assistance."

Sandy spawned record-breaking tides around lower Manhattan, prompting power outages from East 39th Street to Battery Park at the southern tip of the island. The NYU Fertility Center is on First Avenue and 38th street, just a block from the overflowing East River.

The storm forced the nearby NYU Langone Medical Center to evacuate 300 patients in gusts of wind topping 70 miles per hour. Cells, tissues and animals used for medical research were left to die in failing refrigerators, freezers and incubators.

But thanks to Grifo and his team, eggs and embryos at the fertility clinic were spared.

"Hopefully we'll get some babies out of it, and that'll be a nice story as well," he said.

Sandy was an example of what some fertility clinics call an "act of God," an unfathomable tragedy that patients are warned about before starting the IVF process.

"There's so much riding on this," said Dr. James Goldfarb, director of the University Hospitals Fertility Center in Cleveland. "Even when everything's going smoothly, it's stressful for women. But add the stress of having to start all over again, that's extremely stressful."

Watch more on this story on "20/20" TONIGHT at 10 ET

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