The Clean Team

As bio-recovery experts, this Ulster County couple spends their days decontaminating crime scenes

Ever wonder who cleans up crime scenes, traffic accidents, or decomposing bodies discovered days or weeks after death? How about houses piled floor-to-ceiling with garbage? Although breezily depicted in the recent film Sunshine Cleaning, this work is no walk in the (Hollywood) park. It requires the fortitude of an EMS worker and the tact of a funeral director. Fortunately, West Saugerties resident Raquel Steinlage-Pallak and her husband/partner-in-crime-cleanup, Ian, have experience being both.Beginning in high school as a volunteer for the Miami-Dade Crime Scene Unit, Raquel’s journey into this enigmatic world took several turns. She was a mortician, funeral director, and a death investigator; she also graduated with a degree in social work/criminal justice. “It’s difficult dealing with relatives of people who die suddenly or violently,” she says. “They want answers right away, and contrary to popular TV shows, results for some tests can take months.”While in Florida, she became aware of several crime-scene cleaning companies, and it seemed a viable career option. When she realized that no one was offering bio-recovery (as the process is called) in Ulster County, she began thinking about starting her own company. “Many people thought it was ghoulish,” she remembers. “But from our perspective, it’s a service.” She and Ian decided to move forward, and created Ulster Biorecovery, LLC in 2008.“You can’t just call a housecleaning service to clean up crime scenes,” states Raquel. Unfortunately, it turns out you probably can, but shouldn’t — due to federal, state, and local guidelines for handling medical waste. As a homeowner, landlord, or employer, you’re responsible for any pathogens left behind which can cause sickness months or even years later.“Upon arrival, it’s critical to establish when the incident occurred, other hazards at the site, items of sentimental or financial value that need to be salvaged, and the presence of free roaming pets that may have spread contamination,” Raquel summarizes. After suiting up in protective gear, the couple documents the scene with photos, sketches, and video. A staging area for equipment is set up just beyond the area to be cleaned. Work progresses from the most contaminated area to the least. Vomit in a police car takes a couple of hours to clean; a decomposed body can take up to two weeks or more to disinfect and deodorize; the process often entails almost complete inside demolition, right down to the wall studs and trusses.Raquel recalls their first job was a “trash” house, which was occupied by a family. It was filled with garbage and had no working bathroom, which she says is often more psychologically upsetting than an actual crime scene. Ian agrees: “You’d never think in a million years that parents could treat their own kids that way.” Yet, they have to remain neutral. “You’re not there to judge a situation, you’re there to do your job and clean it up,” he explains. Other jobs have included a fire in a house where an elderly woman had hoarded everything (including trash) and owned about 50 feral cats. Garbage was literally piled up to the ceiling. Ian says a “viscerally shocking” job involved the suicide of a young man, who shot himself in the shower. A decomposed body in the Bronx wasn’t discovered for two weeks. “This man lived in this boarding house for 10 years and died in his room. The landlord couldn’t even remember his first name.” Raquel shakes her head. “That’s what we encounter.”The work is both emotionally and physically demanding. Donning Tyvek coveralls, gloves, boots, and respirators slows them down. Special equipment — ozone generators (for big stinks), ultra low volume foggers (to dispense disinfectants in tiny particles), and an automatic pressure washer — is used to tackle tough jobs. There’s some low-tech stuff, too. “Our handy-dandy blood detector, like on CSI, is just hydrogen peroxide that bubbles on contact with blood,” laughs Raquel. Paper towels and shovels are often used to clean up large amounts of blood.Raquel has some advice for those considering bio-recovery as a career. “Have a passion for it because it’s a lot of work. The key is to restore the environment and make it safe. And remember, you’re also emotionally restoring it, too.”

ulster bio recovery Ready for anything: Raquel Steinlage-Pallak and Ian Pallak, in their work clothes

Photograph by Nina Flanagan

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