World's Worst Job? Meet the Couple Who Clean Up After Messy Deaths
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"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.
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.