SURFSIDE, Fla. — Dr. Alison Thompson gazed at pictures of the missing and dead lining a fence that has become a memorial following the collapse of a Miami Beach-area condo building 10 days ago. Searching through the rubble as one of the first responders, she has found many photographs scattered among the debris.
“That's the heart-wrenching part, when you see the pictures of the kids, or couples,” Thompson, founder of Third Wave Volunteers, told NBC News from the memorial on Friday. “That's what affects us the most because it brings us back to why we're on the pile.”
“We're just looking for the stolen lives,” she said.
As of Saturday, the confirmed death toll of the partial collapse of Champlain Towers South rose to at least 24, with more than 120 people still unaccounted for.
Hundreds of rescuers are slowly and deliberately removing debris from the site in the ongoing search for those still missing. The painstaking and dangerous process has been both physically and emotionally taxing, first responders said.
Thompson, whose relief organization has worked in disasters around the world, said the building collapse brought back feelings of responding to the aftermath of the September 11th terror attacks.
“It’s been like standing at the gates of hell,” she said.
Thompson said search-and-rescue personnel have been working tirelessly day in and day out, “We all want to have 10,000 people on that pile ripping at everything until our hands bleed, but everybody can't be in there at once. It's so dangerous on the site.”
Maggie Castro, a firefighter paramedic for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, told NBC News from outside the collapse site on Friday “rescuers are on their hands and knees, removing debris as fast as we can.”
“There's just a mountain of debris to go through,” said Castro, who is also a rescue specialist for Florida Task Force 1. As of Friday, Castro said there were approximately 1,500 rescuers rotating through the site.
First responders have not found anyone alive since the first hours after the building partially collapsed the early morning of June 24. The pile is so tightly packed because of the pancake collapse of the building.
“We’ll never give up. We’ll look through every single part of the pile,” Thompson said. “We're trying our best, and we're always hoping for the best.”
Raz Goldfarb, a first responder and deputy leader of Israeli relief organization SmartAID’s Magen search-and-rescue team, said that in the rescue profession “even if it's a very, very small chance, you have to believe.”
“This is the reason that everybody works so hard all the time, 24 hours,” he told NBC News Saturday.
Even in situations where there are no survivors, finding and identifying the remains of the victims is critical for the families, he said.
“It's very, very important to the families. You can’t stop working. You must take everybody out,” he said.
Goldfarb said rescuers have been working 12-hours shifts in heat and sometimes rain as thunderstorms have continued to roll into the area, breaking and cutting through concrete, iron and rebar. But the most difficult part of the operation for him is having patience.
“You have to have lots of patience. In this shape, it will take a lot of time to rescue everybody,” he said.
Search-and-rescue efforts were suspended Saturday to prepare for the demolition of the portion of the building left standing, officials said. Plans for the demolition of the standing portion of the complex have been accelerated as Tropical Storm Elsa looms. Officials said suspension was necessary for safety and engineers at the site would tell first responders when it could resume.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news conference Saturday that the announcement of the pause does not "signify that we are no longer focused on search and rescue."
"We will begin the search and rescue once again on any sections of the pile that are safe to access as soon as we’re cleared," she said.
Search and rescue crews had to previously pause their efforts for about 12 hours Thursday over concerns of the standing structure.
Castro, of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, earlier told NBC News “it's going to be a long-haul recovery, no doubt.”
“But it's not going to be on just one team's shoulders to have to deal with the brunt of the entire scene,” she added.
She said officials have also brought in mental health counselors, therapy dogs, peer support from each department and chaplains to provide support for first responders.
Castro said not being able to find one person alive since the early hours of the collapse “has made this very difficult, emotionally” for first responders.
“I know for a fact there's a lot of guys that have just sat down on top of the pile and just cried, because there's just nothing else they can do,” she said. “They just need to let it out.”