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12/11/2008

News

THE CLEANER
When blood spills, someone has to make it go away

 

When I saw the face in the blood, everything froze for a moment. The blood was everywhere – puddled and smeared, vivid and viscous, red and black on the floor and brown on the bathtub, where someone who couldn’t go on anymore had ended their anguish. One cannot help but imagine it: the despair, the decision, the penetration, the shock at the force with which one’s own blood can flow, the weakening, the collapse and finally the fall, the face coming to rest, hopefully with some gentleness, on the lip of the tub to die.

I didn’t see the face in the photo at first. It had to be pointed out to me, like Dalí’s “Slave Market With the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire,” the optical-illusion painting in which you see two women and then someone points out, “No, it’s a face, see it?” and then the face is all you can see. This ghostly imprint, left when the body was lifted away from the tub, is now all I can see in this photo. It’s disturbing on a primal level, evoking the quiet knowledge that anyone can succumb to hopelessness. Despair is so heartlessly democratic. I feel sure it’s the most haunting face I’ll ever see.

But this is just day one. And this is just a photo. Carmen Velazquez is the one who pointed that face out to me. She’s also the one who cleaned up the blood.

“This is the reality of what happens when somebody gets killed. This is what the family deals with,” she says, showing me photo after photo: murder-suicides, home invasions and natural deaths in which the body lay undiscovered for days. Carmen, 52, is the owner of Orlando-based Biohazard Response, an “accident, blood, crime, death and trauma scene cleanup” company that she started five years ago. Carmen’s husband, Michael Nestved, 48, is an 18-year veteran of the cleaning business. Along with nine employees (five contract workers; four employees on call), they remove the terrible debris of approximately three scenes of varying magnitude every week.

“You’re seeing these people at the worst time of their lives,” says Carmen, who was inspired to start Biohazard Response while doing community work for Harbor House, an organization that advocates for and works with victims of domestic violence. At the time she was dating Michael, who was working in a carpet-cleaning business. Feeling a calling to bring compassion to an aspect of victims’ lives that she felt was lacking, she put the two pursuits together and started her business, cleaning up the aftermath of violence and of nature. (Carmen still works full-time in the Orange County Clerk of Courts office as a customer-service administrator.)

“Nobody thinks anything is going to happen to them, that somebody in your family is going to commit suicide” or that some other calamity will strike, she says, and of course you can’t be prepared for every emergency. But what you should know is this: If a violent crime or a death occurs on your property and causes a mess, you’re responsible for the cleanup. An ambulance will remove the injured, the coroner will bear away the dead, but whatever is left behind is up to you. And honey, there are some things you just can’t Febreze.

. . .

“The most horrible thing in their life happens to them … they come across a dead body in their house,” says Jan C. Garavaglia, M.D., aka “Dr. G: Medical Examiner,” who lends her name and expertise to the forensics TV show on Discovery Health and is chief medical examiner for District Nine (Orange-Osceola). The ME’s office will provide a list of cleanup services to those in need, though being a government agency they cannot recommend any one in particular. (There are 19 on the list for the Central Florida area). You can also contact the American Bio-Recovery Association, an international network of companies, for information about what service a consumer might need for his or her situation and how to go about getting it. On the ABRA website (www.americanbiorecovery.com), for example, you’ll find that your homeowners insurance will probably cover the expense of biohazard cleaning. “Everybody will try to help them through it,” Dr. G. says. She would suggest employing a professional, “because it’s a tough, tough thing to do.”

“No matter how clean a scene gets,” Sheri Blanton, program manager at the District Nine ME’s office, says, “they are never going to be able to remove the situation … they will always know this is where it happened.” And realtors, by the way, don’t have to tell you anything horrendous happened in the house or apartment you’re looking at. 

Orlando’s rising crime rate means more people will have to go through it, too. As of Dec. 5, according to the Orlando Homicide Report on orlandosentinel.com, the total number of murders in town this year was 118, almost beating the record of 121 set in 2006, with several weeks left to go.

“It’s gruesome,” Carmen says of her line of work. People intrigued by the profession tell her, “‘I’ve seen this CSI show, and that seems like a cool job.’ … The minute I hear ‘cool job,’” Carmen says, “I know that’s not the right person.” Carmen and Michael aren’t investigators; they don’t collect tiny hair follicles that will later condemn serial killers. They do things like go out to the airport in the middle of the night to remove a seat from an aircraft in which a patron had uncontrollable diarrhea.

Cool job.

 It’s also an unbelievably hot job. “I’ve lost up to 10 pounds on a job. Carmen’s lost seven or eight,” just in water weight from dehydration, Michael says. The worst was the cleanup of a decomposed body in an un-air-conditioned trailer in August. Their ice-pack vests lasted only about an hour, and between the heat and the smell even the pros couldn’t bear the inside of the trailer for more than a few minutes at a time. There was another in which a woman and her dog had both died in the home (the dog, Michael says, died first), and the place was infested with fleas. In another photo, there is a swathe of blood on the floor where a drunk fell and hit his head outside of a holding cell.

These pictures are from Biohazard Response’s portfolios, before and after shots of all sorts of scenes, which I’m flipping through like family albums in Carmen and Michael’s spotless living room. The picture that’s most emblematic of this tricky and unglamorous business is not a job cleaned by the couple, but work someone else did – badly –and Biohazard Response was called in to clean up after the first cleaners. There was an “unattended death” in a kitchen, and the body was badly decomposed. The original cleaner failed to notice that fluid from the corpse had crept into the kitchen cabinets (wood being porous and liquid traveling up). This had attracted maggots, which were now cozily living inside the cabinet doors. It’s important to know about basic home maintenance and repair for this job; Carmen remodeled her own house by herself.

She says, “When you come into a scene, you have to know where was the body. Is there fluid coming from somewhere?” If the fluid seeps into the floor you probably won’t get rid of the smell; floors are often taken up and removed. Even sheet rock can absorb fluid. Also, human remains don’t smell like anything else, Michael says, not even like a dead animal. The smell is unimaginable. Alcoholics, he says, smell especially bad. Highly concentrated deodorizers are used to make scenes bearable. Carmen likes mint, but notes that “cherry works well with dead bodies.”

Some scenes are not just unpleasant. They’re dangerous.

“There are a lot of health issues for you and your employees,” Carmen says. Hepatitis is actually more dangerous than HIV because HIV dies quickly outside of the body and hepatitis does not (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hepatitis A can live outside the body for months). The couple has had to cut up mattresses soaked in decay – the cloth, the springs, the wood – in order to fit them into the legal containers. Biohazardous waste has to be put in regulation Occupational Safety and Health Administration red bags and then red boxes, after which you need a transporter’s permit to take it off site to an official disposal facility.

Couple biohazardous material with things like pointy mattress springs, broken glass and splintery wood and you need a fair amount of protective gear. Kimberly-Clark makes a hooded jumpsuit that goes over your clothes, followed by two layers of gloves – one latex, taped to the sleeve of the suit; the other either latex or a thicker material, like leather, depending on the job. Over your shoes you’ll wear paper booties and, if there’s broken glass or other potential dangers, thick, unforgiving rubber boots (imagine galoshes four sizes too small) that will go over your shoes with the paper booties over them. You might wear a splash shield or just a charcoal-filtered breathing mask, depending on how much odor or liquid you’re dealing with.

It looks like a lot of gear; I’ll find out how it feels when I’m allowed to shadow Michael on a job.

. . .

The neighborhood has a youthful energy and prosperity about it. Watching neighbors load coolers into their cars and go about their errands, the phrase “fatal stabbing” seems misplaced, like a curse word that slips out in polite company. This is not where you imagine such a thing happening.

The first thing Michael does is establish a “safety zone”; it’s a blue plastic tarp on the floor between the scene and the doorway so that nothing is tracked from the scene out of the house. In the bedroom there’s a large, dark stain on the carpet, a light blood spatter on the walls and smears of blood on the door frame. The walls are covered with notations the police have left, sticky-note style, noting every fleck and fluctuation in the pattern. Everything in the room that’s left (there’s not much) gets trashed, and Michael begins to take the police notes off the wall. Since there is no fingerprint dust, he says, they probably know who did it.

I ask if the stain on the carpet is blood.

“It could be blood,” Michael says. “Or it could be coffee or wine or chocolate milk. It could be a thousand things.” This is a you-never-know business, and a reason why it’s difficult to give sample prices. Some jobs are as low as $300 – the airplane incident, for instance. Others are as high as $5,600. Michael likens it to a car repair; you can’t call a mechanic and say you got in an accident and need an estimate – they have to see the car.

After removing the police tape, Michael washes the walls down with a strong disinfectant that also loosens up dried blood. The clean walls will be sprayed with a sealant. A restoration company will likely repaint. Then there’s that carpet. Michael has a liquid blood detector that will foam up – like hydrogen peroxide on a cut – if blood is present. He sprays the stain, and it fizzes and foams; it looks like the sound Pop Rocks make.

Now that we know it’s blood, Michael has to see how much of it has seeped in and where. He cuts out a square of the stained carpet; it’s a bit larger than an album cover. The blood has soaked through the padding beneath down to the cement under that. He goes through two sessions of scrubbing, using the blood detector as a guide, to make sure the area is clean. It remains for him to pack up all the equipment, including the stuff that’s going to the official disposal facility.

That the process of cleaning up after murder is accomplished in the time you’d pass at a long lunch is astonishing, and after this solemn and surreal experience, I’m proud of myself. I didn’t freak out or pass out. I was brave.

Then the phone rings. Would I like to go on another call?

. . .

The last one took two hours. This one will take three days. Day one will be the bug-bombing, which I won’t be there for. Day three is going to be taking up big chunks of the linoleum-tile floor. I won’t be there for that either.

I’ll be there for day two. And day two will be with me for awhile.

On a sunny weekday morning at 10 a.m., I arrive at an apartment where three people were killed. The crew – Carmen, Michael and a subcontractor from a debris removal company – has already started to haul the furniture out of the house. All of it. Couches, tables and mildewed air mattresses are taken out through the front door and pushed through windows and end up in the giant dumpster that Chris will haul away. I freak when red liquid starts pouring out of a couch; when a plastic bottle clatters onto the ground, I realize it was red Powerade. Before going in, I can see that there is blood – clumped, thick, smeared and tracked – inside the door, and that the apartment feels squalid; the air is so oppressive it has weight.

“Careful, there’s cucarachas over your head,” Michael says when I finally step inside, and sure enough, there’s a cadre of German roaches and other small bugs that survived the bombing. I pop outside. I’ll do this a dozen times before the day is over.

The power has been off for sometime and when Michael opens the refrigerator, the stench about knocks everyone over. I pop outside. The deodorizer that he usually dilutes in a gallon of water gets splashed around the room, not quite like champagne after a race, but you get the idea, and the clearing of the air makes everything feel less swimmy. What I thought was dirt all over the walls turns out to be fingerprint dust (it looks like black eye shadow). Another shooting apparently took place in the hallway where there’s more blood, and in another room, “R.I.P.” is spray-painted on the wall in huge red letters; Michael says it’s likely that someone broke in to do it.

Carmen knocks bloody baseboards away from the wall with a hammer and assesses the stains by the front door. Some of the floor will have to be taken out. With no electricity to power the tile remover and no generator available today, they will have to come back tomorrow. That’s OK; there’s plenty of cleaning to do right now.

The blood on the floor has been softened up with brushes, but it’s a machine that looks like an industrial buffer that will really take it up, pumping 200-degree water at a pressure of 99 pounds per square inch onto the floor. The fingerprint dust is washed off the walls wet, so we won’t breathe it in. Carmen and Michael talk to me while they work. “There was a person laying there,” Carmen says, pointing at the mess in the hallway, and in another room Michael jokes about how on TV they always have people doing jobs like this while they’re eating. They talk to me, but I notice, not to each other. They are so in synch in this process that they barely need to confer.

They also never need to use the bathroom; they’ve sweated so much it’s not necessary.

Throughout the day, curious passers-by have stopped to ask questions, so I’m not surprised when, on my millionth break outside, a woman stops to chat. She’s holding a toddler by the hand, the sweetest I’ve ever seen (and I’m not a kid person, not by miles). The woman and I talk and suddenly my legs buckle. In one second the impact of all this bloodshed comes down on me and I realize that I can’t even guess at the ripple effect of this, at how many people, to echo the words of Sheri Blanton of the ME’s office, will never be able to wash away the event. This is what Carmen has been trying to get through to me: Once I get it, it’s like being hit in the chest with a shovel.

I thought I had seen the most haunting face I ever would, but now there is another and it’s not just the face; it’s what goes on behind it, what the kids – and adults – who live around here will remember and how they’ll grow with it – that’s the haunting part. People must be at least as absorbent as kitchen cabinets.

I realize that while I could handle the mess, I don’t know if I can handle the unfairness of tragedy. The reason I have a hard time with it is the reason Carmen has taken it on.

“Before I do the cleaning, I talk to the family,” she says. “Sometimes you see the love in a house. Sometimes you see the loneliness.” Sometimes she sees where people have gone through things. “They take all the stuff and they leave all the pictures.” Because of her spiritual nature she prays for the victims.

There is a blend of warmth and coolness required to come and meet death on a regular basis. “You have to find that balance,” Carmen says, and “not just in this business.” It is, she says, about keeping in touch with reality.

The reality of death is not something most of us gravitate to. We may feast on it in fiction or live for what we believe happens after it, but most of us prefer to keep death a great mystery, while ignoring that, ironically, it’s also our greatest certainty. Thankfully not everyone feels that way. People like Carmen and Dr. G., who can handle the necessities of death, might not be there for us in the end, but they will be there for us after it, to take care of things after the accident or the illness, the gruesome find or the great disaster.

You know – the one that’s never going to happen to you. 

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