It's hard work, according to Captain Ken Pagurek of Pennsylvania Task Force 1, whose team works every day from noon to midnight, combing through debris and searching for those who are still unaccounted for. Along the way, the workers find the remnants of the lives lost, like photographs, he said. They're bombarded with a mix of odors: metal and concrete, the animals assisting in the recovery effort and human remains.
But the hardest part?
"The lack of survivors," Pagurek told CNN, his voice breaking 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 doing it, despite the fact 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 one of recovery, describing it as "just a different phase."
"We're going to do what we have to do to get the loved ones home for their families."
Pagurek is in charge of managing operations for his task force, which arrived in Surfside Thursday night, joining other search and rescue teams looking for any survivors among the rubble.
He's seen a lot in his 27 years with the Philadelphia Fire Department, he said, including building collapses. The one most similar to Surfside was the collapse of a building in Philadelphia that fell on top of a Salvation Army building when it was being demolished.
But the Surfside collapse is "the worst that I've been to," 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 take in."
The work is "very labor-intensive" and methodical, he said. Workers have the building plans, Pagurek told CNN, and when they learn that a victim lived in a certain unit, they're able to do very targeted searches.
"And then we're on to the next apartment," he said. "What's the next number? How do we have to go to get to the next person?"
His team isn't used to the heat and humidity of South Florida, and they might modify their "work-rest cycle," to make sure no one is getting fatigued. But they're "exhausted" and "getting minimal sleep," Pagurek said. It's hard to "leave what I just was doing for the last 12 hours."
His head is spinning with questions like, "What is it going to take for us tomorrow? What are we going to do? Did we do a good job today? Could we have done a better job today?"
"Critiquing our operations is a big part of how we improve and become better at what we do," he said. "It's not something you can just 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.
Asked if he'll overcome the emotional aspect of the task at hand, Pagurek told CNN he has "a little compartment in my head. I just kind of push it over there. It creeps in every once in a while, 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 collapse, and when he walks by the makeshift memorial wall, he tries not to look at the faces as he goes by. It would just be too hard, he admits. He can't afford to lose focus.
"Just adds more to that little compartment," he said. "And I don't want it to get too full."