Cape Town - Cleaning up a crime scene is a grisly job, but someone has to do it.
Siblings Eileen de Jager and Roelien Schutte, known as the Blood Sisters, have been turning crime scenes back into homes for the past 15 years.
They are the co-owners of Crime Scene Clean-up, and have worked on about 7500 scenes involving everything from farm attacks to natural deaths.
Cleaning a gory crime scene does not involve Handy Andy and a lappie, the sisters explain.
Specialised detergents, which they developed with experts, are used to clean blood-borne pathogens which household chemicals can’t destroy.
And although they have seven branches across the country, the two businesswomen are not above getting on their hands and knees with their own scrubbing brushes.
They stumbled on their line of work while trying to earn a few pounds in the UK, Schutte says.
“We started as appies [apprentices], doing small things for them at the scene. We didn’t tell our dad, he would have freaked out,” she laughs.
“My first scene was a shooting at a house. I can just remember the blood - it was all I could look at. And the smell of it I won’t forget. It was surreal, honestly.”
How do you wipe a loved one’s remains away?
When they returned home, they saw a gap in the market as South Africa did not have any professional crime scene cleaning companies.
Besides being a health risk, wiping the blood of someone you know off a wall is harrowing, De Jager points out.
“Do you know how many people had breakdowns because they had to clean up themselves and were never able to forget it? How do you wipe up the remains of your own mom or child if you have already suffered losing them in the first place?
“When you see a crime scene, your mind registers it and buries it in your subconscious. But when you touch it, it becomes real.”
The sisters as a rule do not clean any scene involving people they may know.
While bloody and gory scenes are a dime a dozen in horror films, one still registers that it is not real, De Jager said.
“Working with it is different. When we watch slasher movies, we calculate quotes and how much it would cost to clean it!”
The scenes they see every working day are traumatic and not something one gets used to, Schutte, from Pretoria, admits. She tries to debrief and talk to her sister, who lives in Ballito, as often as possible.
“I try to see and focus on the good, positive things in life,” she says.
The release of their book Flesh and Blood earlier this year was somewhat therapeutic, they agree.
Their first book, Blood Sisters, was published in 2012.
Written by Riette Rust, a writer and freelance journalist, Flesh and Blood unpacks the heartbreaking, gory, and sometimes funny moments they have experienced in the thousands of scenes they have cleaned.
Dealing with restless spirits is also part of their job, Schutte insists.
She makes sure her feet are covered before she walks through any blood, as she believes she would carry the dead person’s spirit with her.
“When you do and you walk into your own house, you bring the ghosts with you. I have had seven of them at my house at the same time.”
She believes the spirit of a man stayed in her house after his death was wrongly ruled a suicide.
“His son had actually killed him and had stayed in the house with the decomposing body for six months. We knew that something was wrong when we found fresh cheese and grapes in the house,” Schutte recalls.
The ghost would touch her shoulder and page through a Bible, she insists.
She believes in guardian angels, saying they are the reason she is alive.
Schutte has been in a number of serious car accidents and has deep gashes in her legs and face from the injuries. She is missing part of her right ear.
“I totally believe they take care of me. They saved me so many times I am sure they drink margaritas at the end of the day to toast themselves for keeping me alive!”
They are proud of their reputation as they have not received a single complaint in all the years they have been operating.
They have cleaned a number of high-profile crime scenes, but are not allowed to discuss them as they signed non-disclosure agreements.
The cleaners work in pairs, De Jager explains. Once every centimetre of the scene has been cleaned, the partner goes over it again to ensure nothing has been missed.
Unlike the crime scene cleaning depictions on TV shows like The Blacklist, no music is played and no TV is turned on while they work.
“If you listen to something while you do this job, you will attach a memory to it and later recall the job when you hear that sound or song again. This isn’t something you want to remember.”
Used toilet paper
The sisters also clean out the homes of hoarders. They agree the strangest incident they responded to was a man who stored used toilet paper, stacking it as high as the ceiling.
In another clean-up, a woman threw a bread knife at Schutte as she started removing her possessions.
They clean flood or fire damage and sewage spills.
“Some scenes make us cry, but nothing makes us vomit,” De Jager quipped.
Ever wondered what would be the most difficult thing to clean off a surface?
“Definitely pieces of scalp, especially with the hair still attached,” she muses.
“You need a scraper to get that off tiles.”