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At Surfside condo collapse site, a ‘mentally and physically taxing’ assignment for Tampa rescuers

The task force from Tampa Bay will be assisting with search and rescue efforts until at least the end of the week.

SURFSIDE, Fla. — In the slow, methodical search for survivors in the rubble of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium building, rescuers remain positive.

As day once again turns to night on Monday, the work on the ground goes on.

It’s grim and grueling, “mentally and physically taxing,” says Lt. Steve Lawrence with St. Petersburg Fire Rescue, but it’s what they train for.

Lawrence is leading logistics for Florida Task Force 3 out of Tampa Bay, comprised of 72 members including physicians, engineers, K9s and personnel from St. Petersburg Fire Rescue, Tampa Fire Rescue and Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.

Work began as soon as the crew arrived in Surfside on Saturday morning and has continued around the clock with members working in 12-hour shifts, battling storms, the summer heat and toxic fumes from fires burning below the debris.

They’re searching for any sign of survival.

Credit: Florida Task Force 3

“It’s painstaking removing the rubble,” Lawrence told 10 Tampa Bay. “I mean we’ve got people up on the pile, we have five-gallon buckets, they’re loading the buckets and dumping them.”

It’s a delicate balance, says Lawrence, as they try to show as much respect to the families of the missing while making sure they don’t miss anything.

No one has been pulled alive from the rubble since last Thursday and with the way the building fell – a so-called "pancake collapse" – there’s little room for potential survival spaces in the massive piles of mangled concrete and metal.

But, Lawrence says they remain hopeful.

“We tend to focus on those areas where the dogs hit… and then we’ll remove the dogs, clear as much as we can, and then bring the dogs back to see how they react,” he said. “Because we’re still getting a positive reaction from our K9s. It gives us hope there’s a possibility [of still finding survivors].”

The Tampa Bay task force members are among nearly 400 members from eight different Florida Urban Search & Rescue task force teams assisting in Surfside. It is the largest non-hurricane deployment of rescue crews in Florida's history, according to the state.

There are also responders from Mexico and Israel.

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