When The Cops And Coroner Leave, Frank Festag Steps In – August 30, 2011

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Frank Festag suited up for action. KLH | Eye

Warning: the following story contains graphic language describing matters some readers may find disturbing, a situation not ameliorated by the editor’s propensity for using the most lurid terms available. First of two parts. – Ed.

Kevin L. Hoover

Eye Editor

HUMBOLDT – Frank Festag is about the most normal person you’ll ever meet. With an easy laugh and gently philosophical air about him, Festag’s idea of a grand time is playing with his grandchildren in his greenhouse, where he raises different varieties of tomatoes.

A working man needs that kind of wholesome relaxation after scraping human brains off of walls all day. If he’s lucky, that is – some jobs require the wall itself be pulled out and hauled away.

Festag cleans up crime scenes. After police have come, arrested suspects, tagged and bagged evidence and left, it’s up to Festag to detoxify the domicile. Doing so requires an arcane skill set, sometimes a strong stomach and, like emergency first responders and others, a certain ability to mentally compartmentalize experiences.

Originally from Oakland, Festag gained expertise in managing difficult situations. For a time he installed vaults and safes, even ATMs. He also became skilled at the reverse procedure – breaking in to bank vaults when the timers that control them fail.

“The bank people tend to overwind them,” Festag says. “If [the vault] isn’t open Monday morning, they lose their FDIC status.”

The call for his vault penetration skills often came at 2 a.m., from panicked bank officials. “I’d go all over the place breaking into vaults,” he recalls. “It was fun.”

Another variation involved removal of old, disused vaults. These generated more stories to tell, including finds of everything from drugs to diamonds squirreled away in and around the old safeboxes.

In order to do that job, he said, you have to know all the building trades – all of them –  and have to be pretty good at them. That led Festag into work as a remodeling contractor.

Among his more difficult jobs were restoring homes which had been damaged by various forms of contamination, including shootings – some self-inflicted – and drug manufacturing. Then Festag saw a few fateful films.

“I watched a movie called Sunshine Cleaning, and another movie called The Cleaner,” Festag says. “That blew my mind, because these guys are getting extremely high pay for something I’ve been doing for years.”

Festag decided to train up and do it right. He obtained certifications from the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Department of Transportation in handling of hazardous materials and blood-borne pathogens.

With all his official ducks in a row, Festag founded CSI Decon, his decontamination business.

That prepared him for a range of situations, from messy death scenes to poison-polluted drugmaking facilities, their particular perils as varied as the skills required to reverse them.

“My main service is to first decontaminate things, clean it, remove it and make it safe for the other people to come in,” he says.

That’s easier said than done, and not for the squeamish. Festag never knows quite what the authorities will leave him to deal with.

“You have to be prepared for anything once you open that door,” he says. “You’ll have some kind of a heads up of what to expect.”

He expects a mess. “The coroner doesn’t do any cleaning whatsoever,” Festag said. “They get their pictures, do the body bag thing and scoot. The brain matter is still stuck in the walls.”

The one certainty with death or trauma scenes is gloom. “You’re never going to walk into a happy suicide place,” Festag notes. “Every place you walk into is depressing.”

He’ll start with an assessment of the extent and depth of contamination. An understanding of housing construction is key.

“Does it have air conditioning, or venting that goes to other rooms?” Festag said. “You have to take into consideration everything about the place and how it’s built.”

Some situations can leave the air heavy with bacteria and intolerable odors. “A suicide, maybe a decomposed body that exploded,” Festag says matter-of-factly. “Those are real nasty. The body emanates an amazing amount of fluids. They come out the orifices.”

Even in death, people are individuals, decomposing at different rates.

“The sicker they are, the faster they decompose. An old person that somebody forgot about and hasn’t checked on in a week, that gets pretty bad.”

The aftermath of violent crime and assaults can be just as grotesque. “Typically blood from somebody who was stabbed, they’re gonna get it everywhere,” Festag says. “Especially if they’re flailing around and squirting it everywhere.”

In severe cases, Festag will suit up, bring in his industrial-grade ozone machine and let it run for a day. This process destroys bacteria, sterilizes the interior and neutralizes the stench. “It totally ceases bio-activity,” he says. “The end product is pretty cool.”

Festag then goes in, opens the windows to air the place out and gets down to cleaning.

“I just start, because once you’re in it, you’re in it,” he says. “Doesn’t matter how gory it is.”

Early experiences with mortality helped inure Festag to the implications of hardcore gore. At age 12, he happened upon an urban plane crash scene in which six people had died. “There was body parts everywhere,” he recalls. “I found a piece of skull with hair on it. I was looking at that going, ‘Wow, cool.’”

Not long after that, tragedy became more personal. “Before I was 13, I watched my father die, my mother die, and my best friend died in my arms,” he says.

Like others must manage tragedy, Festag powers through it by focusing on the practical exigencies of the moment. He’s hired to git ’er done by others who will handle the mourning chores.

“When you’re down on your knees scrubbing up blood, you don’t want to think about how gruesome and gory it is, you just have to think of the best ways to suck it up. It’s just another substance.”

He doesn’t dwell on the implications of what he is remediating, as that would just slow him down.

“I cannot be absorbed into what happened there,” he relates. “I have to put that aside, their lives and how this happened aside. If you start feeling sorrow or empathy, even in a place where a baby died, something that really tears at your heart, you have to look for another line of work. All the EMTs and doctors do.”

Festag’s cleaning technique is simple: broad strokes followed by details.

“You go for the big stuff first. Like you were to clean up big amounts of mud. Then you slowly fine-tune it. It’s almost like having your car detailed but a lot more intense and a lot larger.”

Besides, it’s not like there are going to be any surprises. “I think I’ve seen pretty much everything now,” he says.

By day’s end, all the carnage-scrubbing helps a man work up a mighty big appetite.

“I’m one of those people that never eat a breakfast or lunch,” he said. “I pig out on dinner.”

End of part 1. Next week: cleanup of meth labs and grow houses.

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