Pennsylvania's Task Force 1 returns home after Surfside, Florida rescue efforts

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- It has been more than three weeks since a 12-story condo collapsed in Surfside, Florida, killing at least 90 people.

More than 70 members of Pennsylvania's Task Force 1 were there for 17 of those days, using their urban search-and-rescue skills to search for those buried under the rubble.

Task Force 1 is a state urban search and rescue outfit under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, otherwise was known as FEMA.

They returned home Friday to their headquarters in Tacony, tired and emotionally drained.

"It was very difficult when we first saw the site," said Task Force 1 member Debbie McDonald. "Walking through the rubble was also difficult for us."

When McDonald and the rest of the team deployed for the rescue operation two weeks ago, her hope for survivors was still great.

Just 16 people were confirmed dead at that time.

But as each day passed, the toll climbed, and despair built.

The total dead now stands at 97.

RELATED: 911 calls from Florida condo collapse reveal confusion, chaos as Surfside building came down

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New Jersey's Task Force One is one of the 28 teams responding to the Florida building collapse.

"We did what we could with our partners down in Florida," said Joe Starkey. "We tried to bring the people that were lost back to their families."

The search through rubble and debris from the Surfside Tower collapse was slow and arduous, McDonald says.

"Very hot, very stormy, every day we had thunderstorms," she added. "We would break for lighting, but pretty much they worked through the rain. It was very difficult."

The Philadelphia Fire Department sponsors the task force and makes up roughly half its members.

It deployed to New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and has assisted during other major disasters.

These men and women are just glad to be home with their families.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, who also was in attendance Friday, says the work these men and women did is amazing.

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