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Rescue workers still search for survivors

Amy Steelman, left, and Lou Angeli are two of a handful of workers who make their way underground the World Trade Center disaster site.  

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Far below the charred, twisted rubble of the World Trade Center, Amy Steelman and Lou Angeli ignore the smell of death and search for a pulse. They haven't found one -- yet.

They are two of the thousands of firefighters and emergency personnel working at the World Trade Center disaster site. And they are two of a handful of the thousands of workers who make their way underground below the destroyed towers.

The sight, they say, is straight from a disaster movie. The underground world is a gray one, literally. Dark and dusty. Abandoned and eerie. Silent and deathly. But in other parts of the underground, the scene is surprisingly intact, leaving plenty of room for survivors.

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Though it has been seven days since anyone was pulled alive from the rubble, Angeli, Steelman and the other underground rescue workers are saying there are enough open spaces, with food and water, for people to survive.

Angeli and Steelman are both firefighters in a suburban Philadelphia department. Angeli himself is a battalion chief.

And they are also filmmakers. They have made Emmy-award winning films of disaster scenes.

The pair have performed their burrowing task almost every day since they got to New York to help.

They tunnel down through the debris of the World Trade Center complex into the seven-story basement that once housed a bustling retail mall, subway station, and commuter train station.

After crawling through a small, pitch-black hole in the debris, making their way past sharp metal parts, pieces of office paper, and pulverized concrete, they use listening devices and night-vision cameras to search for anyone alive.

"It's not a safe feeling," says Steelman. It seems as if the wreckage -- with its creaks and sounds that resemble moans -- is "talking."

The searches have been as long as eight hours at a time.

"It's the hope of all firefighters that there are people still in there," Angeli says.

After crawling underground, they walk down an escalator. It's too dark to know how far down they go.

At the base, they find large areas of the underground mall still standing as they were the morning of September 11, nearly untouched.

They see an abandoned coffee shop, an eerie sight.

"There's a bunch of coffee cups out, and coffee made," Angeli said. In other areas, stale donuts sit on the counter tops.

But the two find no bodies and no survivors. "Whoever was there knew to get out," he says.

The subway tracks appear intact as well, he says.

Like other rescue workers whose job it is to venture underground, Angeli and Steelman spray orange paint to mark the places they have searched. Another firefighter is stationed at a key point to relay messages to the teams above.

Each tunnel is named and depicted on diagrams distributed to emergency workers. They serve as maps to help teams navigate the towering debris and wreckage piles that have taken over the city blocks at the World Trade Center site.

Angeli says the area looks like scenes from action movies like "Armageddon" or "Independence Day."

But the tunnel he and Steelman use one day may not be there the next time the two venture down. As debris is cleared away by the huge claws of hydraulic excavating machines, the landscape changes, and new tunnels are created.

Above ground, the debris field and the entire search area, in fact, have been turned into a village of sorts to serve the needs of those working there.

Across the street from the World Trade Center, a Burger King with its windows blown out is a break area where food is served. The space next door -- which used to be a shop -- is now a rest area where volunteers give massages and chiropractic adjustments to weary workers.

The area in and around the rubble is "a city unto itself" for emergency workers, Steelman says. "Everything you could need is right there: clothing, food, doctors."

In this city, advertisements are spraypainted on the sides of buildings. "TRIAGE/FIRST AID" reads one window.

The disaster area is even divided into five named districts. The "10-10 District" honors nearby Engine Company 10; the "Liberty District" could refer to Liberty Plaza, or the famous statue.

Even those who have witnessed such disasters say they wonder at the scope of this one. The scene is surreal, even unreal, they say -- the picture of a post-nuclear wasteland.

Angeli and Steelman describe a 20-story section of 1 World Trade Center -- the north tower -- now embedded into the ground to the subway lines below.

"It is buried," says Steelman, emphasizing every word.

The floors of the twin towers lie stacked one on top of the other, the result of the "pancake effect" when the towers collapsed. The smaller buildings, charred from a fire that burned for two days, now appear as skeletons.

And an 80-foot crater now marks the spot where 2 World Trade Center once stood, Angeli says. "It looks like the Grand Canyon."

Inside the crater, they saw computer monitors, keyboards, broken swivel chairs and briefcases, as well as jewelry and shoes. All of it must be saved as evidence.

With each passing day, a pungent smell -- "the smell of death," Steelman says -- gets stronger. She says it helps the rescue dogs know where to search.

It is also a painful reminder of what still must be found -- the thousands of people who remain missing.

"There are moments," Steelman says, "when you have to just walk away and cry."

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