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9/11 first responder reflects on grueling rescue mission in the wake of condo collapse

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Crews dig through the rubble to look for victims of the Surfside condo collapse. (CNN Newsource/Miami-Dade Fire Rescue)

Search efforts have now resumed in Surfside following a pause on Thursday morning due to structural concerns, and the race against the clock continues.

Richard Alles, the former FDNY Deputy Fire Chief, knows firsthand what it's like to do this very important and grueling work at the scene of a catastrophe for days on end.

Alles responded after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and though the two tragedies are very different, he says the scene in Surfside still brings up memories from that day.

"Here, the entire housing complex didn’t collapse, but the portion that did, collapsed the exact same way that the Twin Towers did," Alles told CBS12 News. "A pancake collapse, which is really the worst kind of collapse because of the way the floors come down on top of each other. The opportunity to have those voids where people are able to survive is less likely in this type of collapse."

And though concerns of a secondary collapse still loom, the job is far from over.

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Alles calls the work "backbreaking," but it's clear it's exhausting in more ways than one.

"When a first responder or someone goes through this kind of thing, it is life-changing," clinical psychotherapist Jennifer Tomko told CBS12 News.

Tomko works with some 9/11 first responders who are still dealing with trauma today, and she says that the scene in Surfside is triggering for some.

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"There are a lot of parallels," Tomko said. "They are thinking about the process and the people in the rubble.”

And though the memory of the lives lost is painful, first responders say it's that very thought - of the victims and their families - that keeps them pressing on.

"I just recall passing people on a bus and seeing so many people holding up pictures of their loved ones," Alles said.

"We're here working and we've seen the families. the rescuers working on the pile have seen the families coming to the site, yelling out their family names," one Miami-Dade rescuer told media on Thursday. "It's become something where we need to find things for these people and we need to give them some sort of closure."

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