A Failure to Communicate

Most forensic restoration projects starts the same: a phone rings. It is at this point that a forensic restoration specialist asks the crucial “who, what, where, when and how” questions to acquire critical incident data (CID). This allows specialists to prepare themselves, their team and equipment to respond in a professional manner to whatever particular incident they are called on to respond to. In a perfect world, a specialist would ask the right questions and get the right answers. But it’s not a perfect world, is it? The following is a true story, but the names have been changed to protect the incompetent.

CASE STUDY

Incident type: Unattended death
Location: Somewhere on the lone prairie

It was August, and the mercury had risen into the triple digits before the noon hour. We had been on the inter- state for a couple hours when my wife, Lori, said, “Take the next exit and go north 12 miles on the state highway, then turn right on the country road, go for a mile and a half, and it’s the only house on the right.” As I turned onto the gravel driveway of the double-wide mobile home, I noticed construction materials of lumber, cinderblocks and bags of Quikrete cement. Someone had started to lay out the framework for a deck on the front of the mobile home. Behind the residence were several people standing by their vehicles with solemn expressions on their faces.

When I answered the phone call, my contact person informed me that the deceased had been in the residence two, maybe three days. “Two or three days,” I reminded Lori, adding, “we’ll do this by the numbers and pro- vide these people with a professional service experience,” before exiting the vehicle. After introductions were made, I was provided with a key to the back door. Lori and I donned the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for an initial site assessment. As we approached the back door, I noticed a gross (no pun intended) amount of flies on the kitchen window. Blowflies often show up within the first hour after death, seeking the moist areas of the corpse to lay their eggs. Eggs hatch to larvae (maggots) within 24 hours. During the next six to 10 days, the larvae feed on the host and grow. Approximately 12 days later, adult flies emerge and the cycle continues.

We finally entered. A HEPA filter can trap down to 0.3 microns in size. However, the size of the odiferous molecules coming off a decaying body or gross amounts of “bio” (decomposing portions of the human body) left behind can be as small as 0.00000000000007 in size. Even with PPE and a swab of Vicks Vapo-Rub underneath our noses, the pungent air exiting the residence can only be described as “heavy” and something no sane person would want to inhale without proper protection. But this was just the beginning — the deceased had expired in the middle of the living room but bio had migrated toward the kitchen.

The human body begins to decompose about four minutes after death through two distinct processes. Autolysis occurs first and is a process of self-digestion involving a chemical breakdown of cells and tissue. Putrefaction is a more destructive process caused by bacteria, mostly from the intestinal track that destroys the body’s tissues. Putrefaction is the ugly part where gasses accumulate, the abdomen swells and, well, you get the picture. Temperature and humidity also come to play in the decomposition equation. Heat will accelerate decomposition, and a dry environment will evaporate a decomposing corpse, leaving behind mainly lipids and fatty grease materials.

It seems that the first responders were so overcome with the smell, they grabbed a sack of Quikrete and poured it onto a large pile of off-gassing bio after removal of the body, resulting in cementing the bio into the residence. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” Lori asked. “Heck, I’ve never even heard of anything like this,” I answered. “Lori, this is not two or three days — this is two or three weeks-plus,” I said.

Lori is a certified crime scene investigator and began to track the footprints of the first responders and whoever else had been in the residence postmortem and observed that there was considerable cross-contamination. At this point, we opened the front door to let in some fresh air and let the flies escape. Back to the flies, whenever a living organism eats, it defecates. The deceased was the host, so now you also have cross bio contamination thrown into the forensic restoration equation. Lori began to photograph the affected areas, as well as the rest of the residence, while I formulated a forensic restoration battle plan.

Engineering controls and work zones consisting of operations, transition and clean zones were then established. The first step in the actual remediation process on a forensic restoration project of this nature is the load reduction process. The load reduction specialist will clean their way in and then remove the decomposing body parts, placing it in special boxes for proper disposal as medical waste. This project did involve a lot of manual scraping due to the cement on the bio.

Next came the removal of carpet and pad so that the sub- flooring could be cut out. Once the subfloor had been removed, I noticed some droplets on the insulation materials. When I lifted it up, it exposed large pools of blood and a lot of fly larvae (maggots). The average human adult has about 10 pints of blood in their body, and this liquid would have to be removed through mechanical action (by hand). Once the load reduction was completed, it was time to clean and disinfect the entire structure and contents. This entire project took two-and-a-half days to complete. On the way back home, Lori said, “You know, there’s a lot you didn’t tell me about this job on the way out.” “You know, there’s a lot they didn’t tell me,” I said. “Besides, there’s a lot I still don’t know. I am a student; I’ll always be a student in the field of forensic restoration. The best I can do is to put my boots on one at a time and go out and make it better.” RIA

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