‘This type of work isn’t for everyone.’ Talking to Richard Carpenter of UltraSteam about everything you never imagined about crime scene, trauma, and biohazard scene clean-up
When the Grim Reaper plows through your quiet abode and snatches your best pal or grandma, what happens next? What if everyone thought Aunt Becky was on vacay but really she fell down the stairs and is just now being found? There’s a smell. There’s blood. There’s more sprucing up to do than a body’s exit. Maybe nobody died, but your psycho ex shot you in City Market’s parking lot and you gushed red gore in your rust-bucket Buick driving to the hospital. Do you clean that? Can you clean that? Is there a right way to get rid of pooling fluids and biomatter?
There is, in fact, a correct way to tidy a scene of death or violence, and if you don’t use a professional, you could be knee-deep in health risks and not know it. UltraSteam Professional Cleaning & Restoration Services is a locally-owned company that, in addition to assisting with everyday issues like mold remediation, fire and water damage, and carpet cleaning, is certified in biohazard cleanup. That means UltraSteam can safely erase incidents of murder, suicide, natural death, and accidents that involve biological fluids. DGO spoke to Richard Carpenter, owner of UltraSteam about compartmentalizing, compassion, and what it’s like to work in biohazard/trauma/crime scene cleanup.
Is trauma cleaning common in Durango?Fortunately, trauma and biohazard cleanup is not something I can make a living at in Durango. It is just one of the services we offer.
Is trauma cleaning only crime scene-related? I’ve seen the full gamut of situations. It’s not always a crime.
I think people might think we only deal with gruesome crime scenes. That’s the exception not the norm around here. Very seldom is it a murder scene. Suicide, I’ve seen quite a few times, but more likely it is accidental or natural, or maybe not even a death.
I’ve seen everything from people who’ve accidentally shot themselves because they were cleaning their gun to people who died naturally and didn’t get found. Or I’ve had several encounters where someone inadvertently hurt themselves at home and their family calls and says, “Oh, hey, Grandpa bled all over the house. He’s fine, but can you come and clean it?”
What assumptions do people make about cleaning up after trauma or crime?People assume that the family cleans everything up. The family should not have to clean these things up.
I think sometimes people assume that you can clean more stuff than you can. Like carpet after a severe incident, for instance. You have to cut the carpet pad out and get rid of it. You may or may not be able to clean the subfloor depending on what it’s made of and how long it has been penetrated.
I watched a movie one time where they steam-cleaned the couch and all the blood came out. That’s not how that would go in real life.
Is there a type of scene you won’t clean? No, I compartmentalize. This type of work isn’t for everyone. I can set “me” aside and focus on the specifics of the task. This is a job that has to be done. Better that I do it than the friends or family having to.
Is it strange for family or friends to be at the house while you are cleaning? Not really. There’s times when I wind up giving people a hug, as weird as that may sound, depending on the situation, especially if there’s not somebody else to do that for them at that moment.
If it is OK to ask, what is the worst thing you’ve seen? I got called up one night by a landlord. He said, “The cops called me and apparently there’s been a murder-suicide at my house.” It was a couple in their 70s in a very nice house. The husband had killed the wife in the kitchen and then walked out onto the porch, smoked a last cigarette, and killed himself.
The other one that sticks out – I had a really good friend in Aztec. Her son and his girlfriend were shot at. One of the son’s friends from once-upon-a-time-ago came to their trailer and tried to shoot them through the windows. He didn’t hit the son but did hit the girlfriend. She survived and was ultimately fine. I went and cleaned that up, but that was a little close to home for me because I knew them.
Is there rhyme or reason to who can do this kind of job?Some of my guys can do this. Some can’t. Some will on a limited basis, like if I need three people then there’s one I know who is happy to go with me, there’s another if I really need someone, and there’s a few more that will do the cleanup after the initial work is done.
A friend of mine in the industry once said that there’s a certain number of these you can do in your lifetime before you have to stop. Everyone has a number. For some people, it’s one. Some people it may be 10,000, but at some point, you reach I’m-done-now.
Do you think you are close to reaching your number? No. I think it would be different if I was doing this every single day. The cup would be filling faster if this was a big city and it was all I did for a living.
How long does a cleanup take?It depends on what the situation is. I’ve been done in a day and I’ve had some that take three, four, five days with multiple people cleaning the site.
What about the smell? The respirators have carbon vapor filters so that abates the smell a lot. The air scrubbers that we ventilate the area with also have carbon vapor filters. If there is an odor issue, we have hydroxyl machines that help to kill that.
You don’t get used to the smell. It is what it is, but you may smell it a bit when you first get there and then you plastic-off the doorway and put on your own mask, and the mask takes care of it almost completely. Once you’ve got the air scrubber set up to bring fresh air into the area you’re usually not smelling it anymore at all.
What about smell after you leave?Let’s say somebody died in the bedroom and no one else was home. If they didn’t find that person for a week, the whole house may need to be cleaned. We may need to come in and wash down walls, clean all the carpets, remove the draperies, and put hydroxyl machines in the rest of the house to deodorize it in the same way that we would for a fire job to get rid of soot and the burnt smell. Every job is different. Sometimes a smell is confined, sometimes odor or other material is tracked into different parts of the location, extending the cleanup scene.
What happens to waste from a trauma/biohazard scene? I don’t know if you’ve ever watched “Sunshine Cleaning,” but there’s a scene where they haul a mattress outside to a dumpster. That happens in real life a lot more than it is supposed to. If you have an affected mattress, for example, you cut it into small, manageable pieces and pack the pieces into biohazard boxes. The waste has to go into tubs that get transported to Denver for incineration.
You can’t lay it outside, douse it with gasoline, and light a match. It’s a public health hazard. You cannot put it in the dumpster or haul it to the landfill. People do it but you aren’t supposed to. If you throw it in the landfill, it’s a hazard to the people working there. If they’re moving that trash around and the bag breaks open, it’s the same as standing in the original room but worse because the bacteria has multiplied and they have less safety equipment.
What hazards come with working around blood?There’s a lot of viruses that can survive in dried blood for quite a while. If blood is dry on carpet and you abrade it or step on it and it gets in the air and you breathe it in, it can reconstitute in your own body. That other person’s blood is in your body and whatever bacteria or viruses were in them are now in you.
Has there ever been a personal object at a scene that made it hard for you to compartmentalize and clean? A pair of eyeglasses on the floor laying in blood ... It was a car accident where the driver was a lady who died and her fiancé and child survived. She went head-on into a truck ... The cops found that the car behind her had been texting until the moment of impact which had shoved the victim’s vehicle into the back of a truck. Her glasses were on the floor. There were random notes and receipts ... That one was hard.
Is there a part of this cleaning service that people might find surprising? There are occasions of violent death, like a suicide or a murder, where sometimes the police haven’t yet recovered a bullet before I get there. Part of my job is to follow any possible piece of the trail to clean. A bullet would have biomatter on it and would need to be removed and the area cleaned.
If there is a hole in the drywall or ceiling, I have to follow the bullet trail to its conclusion. If the trail goes into a ceiling and the attic above, I would have to go into that attic and start looking for where the bullet ended up. I would probably try to cut out a small piece of the drywall around the bullet hole and to try and find it. Did it get caught in the insulation? Did it go through the insulation and lodge into a rafter?
I came to one scene where the sheriff mentioned that they had not recovered all the bullets. As I started cleaning, I found one. I stopped, called law enforcement, waited for them, showed them the bullet, and let them bag it up and take it away. Then they searched again and left. I continued working and found another. They came back out and dealt with it.
Is trauma/biohazard/crime scene cleanup expensive?Some of it can be, yes. If I ask an employee to do this, that person is going to make really good money, and the insurance to do this is super expensive.
Normally, this service is covered by your homeowners or car insurance and if it’s not, then a payment structure could be worked out.
How the heck do you come down from a hard day at work?I could be flippant and say Jameson, but that’s not true. For me, a lot of letting go is connecting to nature and animals. I have three dogs and two cats. That is my decompression. Living in Durango and getting out, even if only to my backyard, is my decompression.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity. Patty Templeton