(CNN) — Authorities continue to work around the clock in Miami searching for victims in the rubble of the collapsed building, even as authorities have moved from a rescue operation to a body recovery effort.
It’s hard work, according to Captain Ken Pagurek of Pennsylvania Task Force 1, whose team works every day from noon to midnight, combing debris and looking for those who are still missing.
Along the way, workers find the remains of lost lives, such as photographs, he said. They are bombarded with a mixture of scents: metal and concrete, animals that aid in the recovery effort, and human remains.
But the hardest part? “The lack of survivors,” Pagurek told CNN, his voice cracking with emotion.
In an interview with CNN at the end of his 12-hour shift, Pagurek described the mentally and physically exhausting work his team is doing and why he continues to do it, despite the fact that no survivors have been found since the immediate aftermath of the collapse, two weeks ago.
“The mission doesn’t change,” Pagurek said of the transition from a rescue mission to a recovery mission at the building in Miami. He described it as “just a different phase.”
“We are going to do what we have to do to bring loved ones home to their families,” he said.
Miami, “worst” in what has been
Pagurek is in charge of managing operations for his task force, which arrived in Surfside Thursday night, joining other search and rescue teams searching the rubble for survivors.
Rescuers resist wind, lightning and heat in 12-hour shifts to search for victims of the Miami building collapse
He’s seen a lot in his 27 years with the Philadelphia Fire Department, he said, including building collapses. The closest to Surfside was the collapse of a building in Philadelphia that fell onto a Salvation Army building as it was being demolished.
But the Miami collapse is “the worst I’ve ever been in,” Pagurek told CNN.
“The magnitude, you know, the number of victims,” he said, adding: “It’s just, it’s a lot … it’s a lot to assimilate.”
The work is “very painstaking” and methodical, he said. Workers have blueprints for the building, Pagurek told CNN, and when they learn that a victim lived in a certain unit, they can run very specific searches.
“And then we move on to the next apartment,” he said. “What is the next number? How do we have to go to get to the next person?”
I work nonstop in the Miami building
Your team is not used to the heat and humidity of South Florida, and they can modify their “work-rest cycle” to make sure no one gets fatigued. But they are “exhausted” and “sleep the least,” Pagurek said. It is difficult “to stop what was being done during the last 12 hours,” he added.
His head is spinning with questions like, “What’s it going to cost us tomorrow? What are we going to do? Did we do a good job today? Could we have done better today?”
“Criticizing our operations is a big part of how we improve and are better at what we do,” he said. “It’s not something you can turn on and off. I can’t.”
At the end of the day, when he returns to the Royal Caribbean cruise ship where his team is staying, he needs a “decompression period,” he said, to read a book or do a puzzle.
When asked if he will get over the emotional aspect of the task at hand, Pagurek told CNN he has “a little compartment” in his head. “I just push it over there. It crawls every now and then, but you know, it’s just part of the job.”
He said he prefers not to meet the families whose loved ones were lost in the landslide, and when he walks past the makeshift memorial wall, he tries not to look at their faces as he passes. It would just be too difficult, he admits. You can’t afford to lose focus.
“It just adds more to that little compartment,” he said. “And I don’t want it to get too crowded.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism