Death’s Leftovers

At the end of the day Dan Newton stinks.

Some of the smells are familiar ones: the clinical latex smell from the gloves he wears, the smell of funk from sweat. But there’s something more— a ghastly pungent reek so foul you can taste it. It’s so seemingly tangible that it has a death-grip on Dan’s biohazard suit. The stench that dangles in the air is what brought him here, standing outside the small trailer just steps from Resurrection Cemetery.

“Oh that?” asks Newton with his usual flat-lined voice, “That’s the smell of human decomp.”

He’s hardly immune to the smell but it is, after all, just part of the job.

“I urge you to reconsider keeping the bed frame and dresser,” he says in the phone call, he is in constant contact with the family. They seem to keep flip-flopping on weather to keep the bedroom furniture. He knows its the call of closure that brings the family to the job but he urges it won’t help.

Newton’s stoic baby blues have seen their share of burned, bloodied, broken and bloated bodies. And on another hot summer Chicago day he’s a glad the family wasn’t there when he showed up. They don’t need to see and smell this. Not many people do.

It’s not that he doesn’t know what to say to the family—hell, he’s been in the field offering condolences to people for close to three decades, saying things like: “We’ll take care of this, you take care of your family”; “I understand how hard this is for you and your family”; “I’m sorry for your loss.” It’s a mash of oft-repeated niceties delivered in between the sobs of grief from family members.

It’s not that he isn’t compassionate; it’s just that, meeting people on what is the worst day of their lives isn’t high on the fun list.

In fact it is probably the worst part of a trauma and crime scene clean-up crew.

After the police have left, after the Crime Scene Investigators have cleared the scene, there’s still another call to make to the cleaners.

The cleaners scrub, rip and disinfect the leftovers of death—ridding the environment of things like the remaining toxins of a former meth lab, filth left by residents, smells from a decomposed body, blood splatter and cleaning the vents of skulls fragments. Being a cleaner takes a special mixture of safety, patience, timeliness and compassion. Because these sad calls made in the wake of a murder, suicide or accident— comes from landlords and homeowners, not the authorities. And people who are most likely to need this service are the least likely to know that clean-up services exist. Most people don’t think about this dirty job or where it occurs but it occurs across America in cities big and small.

There will always be crime and trauma. But not all jobs are crime-related nor are they messy, but they can be hazardous and people like Newton, founder of Metro Restoration Inc., a cleaning and restoration business specializing cleaning up biohazard and crime and trauma scenes, exist.

“I help people. It’s what I do. It’s what I’m good at.” the 42-year-old says. Many people in the emergency services tend to gravitate to this business due to the high tragedy threshold and the experience of helping those in need.

The Hazel Crest native has close to three decades as a volunteer firefighter in south Illinois suburbs and noticed a need to help those left behind in the wake of a catastrophe. Metro was founded by Newton 15 years ago and reaches areas in and around Chicago and surrounding states.

Death’s Aftermath

The 3-man crew had been at a trailer park in Justice since early morning. The small trailer is about 12×6 feet and boarded up. It’s would look like any other trailer, except for the blazing orange biohazard warning labels that are pasted alongside the trailer. The July summer sky is promising rain, a welcome relief from the 87-degree heat. It was around noon when Newton’s non-descript white van pulls up.

He takes a look at his employees outside drinking water and sitting in the shade, taking another break. All but one is wearing the uniform, which is rarely taken completely off.

“What’s wrong with him?” Newton asks Joe McGowan another seasoned biotech and lead supervisor at the scene.

“Whatta think? He’s hot,” Joe says to his boss. “The suit’s too much for him.”

“We’ll have him stay out. Maybe do the wipe down.” Newton suggests in a tone that isn’t up for debate. Newton checks on the man, making sure he isn’t showing signs of heat stroke. “You can stay on, if you feel up to it, but stay out of the suit.” he tells the employee. Newton reaches in the blue cooler full of ice and begins grabs a bottle of water for himself.

Reaching upwards of 10-20 degrees warmer than the outside temperature, compiled with body heat-the biohazard suit can roasting. The disposable suits are made with 100% high-density polyethylene (HDPE) throughout.

Its design reassures Newton, giving him protection from all forms of chemicals: solids, liquids, gasses and vapors. The suit keeps out particles as small as 0.5 microns.

But most importantly, it’s kept him healthy for more than a decade, as it will when he heads into the house to remove death’s aftermath.

First he steps into the one-piece hooded suit. Secondly, he puts on sock booties and duct tapes them over the elastic cuffs of his protective pants and slips on thick black boots.

Next he put on latex gloves and duct tapes them to the cuffs of his sleeves. Then he puts on a pair of durable blue rubber gloves.

The respirator goes on last.

“The smell of death, of decomposing–It’s a smell that is truly indescribable,” Newton says with a yell. His mono-toned voiced is muted thru the mask. “But once you smell it you’ll never forget.”

He jerks the straps and tightens his respirator; he’s ready to go inside.

The misshapen bloodstain is so loud on the full-sized bed your eyes are forced to it. The violent slash resembles a jaggedly sewn blanket and is alive with flies and maggots, the only sign of life in the teeny room. There’s no air-conditioning in the small trailer. From the angle of the stain it’s as if the man, clad only in red, white, and blue stripped underwear, had simply sat on the edge of his bed, laid back and died. One of his two dogs was found dead at the foot of the bed.

Today’s tasks: The bedroom.

Newton and crew unceremoniously gut into the mattress with a shiny bladed box cutter. Cutting out the stain and placing the material in a hazmat bag. Next they flip the mattress and discover another stain. After cutting it out they take out the ravaged mattress and put it in a big clear plastic bag for disposal.

Back in the room they tackle the stain on the cover of the box spring. Bodily fluids seemed to have seeped their way through the mattresses to the carpet underneath.

It’s when the dull dirty carpet and pads are cut away and pulled up when what seemed to be a few handfuls of white rice was reveled.

It wasn’t rice.

It was hundreds of maggot larvae were feeding on the still wet fluids of the deceased.

Decomposition is a fuzzy corner’s clock, with the stages of death so easily influenced by the person’s characteristics—primarily age, size, and health and environment— and where the body is found. Those factors can make it hard to tell the exact time of death.

It took about a week until a concerned friend contacted police for a ‘Well Being Check’. The length of time since his death, complied with the heat; the 50-year-old was severely decomposed when he was found. According to official reports he died from blood clotting in his arteries. Metro was called three days after the man was discovered.

The first 24 hours, the skin around the stomach turns a blue-green. Once the body ceases to keep bacteria in check, it spreads and Rigor Mortis sets in 3-36 hours after death. Flies are attracted to the smell, laying eyes around the wounds and the body’s natural openings. Within 36-48 hours, the body begins to bloat in areas with loose skin and from the build-up of gases. The strong odor attracts insects like beetles and mites to accompany the maggots that are still feasting inside the body. It will then heat up from all the insect activity.

At the end of the day, it took three bright red full biohazard bags of mattress, box springs and carpet remnants and eight gallon-sized trash bags of clothes to empty out the bedroom, the dressers and two tiny closets of clothes–some with price tags still attached.

“Some people want to keep the clothes. But they shouldn’t,” Newton says I can’t tell you [the family] what to do, but I strongly urge them to reconsider. There’s just no way to get that smell out.”

Metro has a laundry they do recommend, but there’s no guarantee the items will be odor-free, and may wind up costing way more than its worth.

The death scene/decomp job took about four people three days to finish cleaning the trailer, tossing out contaminated pieces and ridding it of the smell.

Newton looks at his pager, the family has called again. They say toss the bedroom furniture.

The Grim Sweepers

Death can be messy. Ripe smells held captive in cushions and mattresses while blood and body fluids seep silently into the cracks of windows and floors. People just don’t get that there’s more to cleaning up a violent scene than just wiping up a spot. A seemingly small blood splatter on the carpet can seep down thru the padding and spread, becoming a two-foot diameter of bodily fluids on the floorboards. A violent scene doesn’t mean the family moves out of the house. The mop and bucket cleaning agencies are not trained or equipped to deal with the trades of death.

“Being in bio is about helping people. It’s about bringing a place back to something habitable that’s the accomplishment,” says Metro supervisor, Bob Slager. “I’m not looking for praise. If feels good inside that your helping people. Helping, that’s the reward I shoot for.”

Slager has about five years with Metro and like Newton, is an Illinois native and a part-time firefighter in the South Suburbs. He views bio cleaning as an alternative way of aiding people that can’t aid themselves. The 42-year-old knows this job is hard on the body and mind so he keeps his sanity by working out and living by the simple motto of: ‘Work doesn’t come home and home doesn’t come to work’.  Rarely does Metro follow-up with the families and business after they’re done. But often a word of ‘Thanks’ come in a letter or email. “I know I make a difference. You can feel it in the handshake, and sometimes a hug, at the end of the job,” Newton says.

Viewing death in all its gory excess can take a toll on most but Newton, like many others in the business, come from a background in emergency services that prepare them for the ick-factor when cleaning human goo off the tables, chairs, floors, ceilings, desk and well…everything.

Newton recalls a call for a body removal last winter for a man that was found dead wrapped in his heating blanket.

“That was a bad one,” remembers Newton. “He’d only been dead a few days but looked like he’d been dead for weeks. Smelled like it too. It’s because of the heating blanket, due to the heat it sped up the decomposition and he had begun to liquefy.” he says. “Many people reach their point, their limit; I guess I haven’t reached mine yet,”

Usually when they’re called out for a body removal they are generally contracted, on the spot, to do the clean up, but not that time. According to Newton, the property owner said he’d find a way to clean it up. “When you see veteran cops sick in the bushes, you know it’s gonna be a bad one,” he says.

That’s not the first time they didn’t get a job but got the body removal. In July, Metro was called by the city of Chicago Heights to remove one body after a deadly shooting of four men at the Esoteric Nightclub.

“Don’t know why we didn’t get the job. They [club owners] never called us,” says Newton.

In a field that deals with tragic death, advertising and marketing can be tricky. Local authorities, housing complexes and transit companies contract most trauma cleanup crews so it pays to have good relations with the community.

No Guts, No Glory

Cook County is 946 square-miles with a population of about 5.3 million people. It’s the second most populous county in the nation, just behind Los Angeles. The sheer volume of the county requires outside contracts of companies for body removals and transport to the corners office in time for autopsy. This can bring some pretty heavy competition.

Metro is one of seven companies that service Illinois, according to the American Bio-Recovery Association (ABRA). But they also compete with an estimated 10-14 other agencies, not affiliated with association. ABRA is an association of crime and trauma recovery professionals that also trains and certifies bio-technicians. Cleaners can make a decent living, according to Newton. Metro’s full-time employees might make around $35,000 a year and depending on the market that number could grow. But even then it all comes down to pricing. For example, the cost of bringing a body to the morgue was costing Chicago Heights about $300, Metro charges just under that to stay competitive.

Cutting prices and offering discounts doesn’t guarantee a job, oftentimes jobs are lost by simply being under-bid.

“Crime scene clean up is a pretty cut throat business,” says Slager. But it’s about your reputation that keeps them in business he says. “And we gotta be there. No missing a call when that pager goes off.” Slager added.

The South Holland based company promises a response time of under an hour for certain locations. They’re contracted with 16 Illinois towns for body removal and cleanup services. Cities like Alsip, Chicago Heights, East Hazel Crest, and Homewood Police Departments have referred Metro and other agencies for the excellent service.

Authorities aren’t allowed to offer a personal referral, they are stocked with business cards to hand the family or business-owner. It pays to have good relationships with the local mortuaries, funeral homes, housing complexes, a decent website and a reliable phone and pager.

About four years ago an office suicide took Metro to Crown Point Indiana. There was an extreme amount of biohazard bodily fluids left on the floors and walls after the gunshot to the head, according to the Lake County coroner office. Metro was there just after the investigation and cleaned up.

“We were informed that one could not tell that this had even occurred once the clean-up was completed,” says the Chief Deputy Coroner Jeffrey Wells.

Metro also has contracts with various Metra areas, primarily cleaning up after suicides involving the commuter train. According to the Illinois Suicide Prevention suicides are the 12th leading cause of death in Illinois with people over 70-years-old have the highest rate and are twice likely as teens to commit suicide.

“Seems older people, like in their 60s, 70s and 80s, are committing suicides, I’ve noticed,” Newton says. “Still we get more of everybody during the holidays. People get real depressed during the holidays, bout November, every year.”

Whether its drying a bathroom floor after a suicide in the tub (Metro is certified in Water Damage Restoration) or cleaning up after hoarders; people are under the impression that when an incident occurs in a home or business it’s up to the authorities to clean the mess. It’s not. It’s the responsibility of the owners, and usually covered, in part, by insurance.

Coverage varies depending on the policy but typically insurance covers up to 50-60% and what’s leftover can be paid thru financing and in some cases by the Crime Victims Compensation Bureau. Many crime-scene clean-up companies will handle the insurance paperwork for their clients.

Crime may not pay-but the cleanup does. Potential clients should be aware of the wide range of prices charged throughout the industry.

Metro’s prices can range from $1200 to clean up a small spatter of blood to the $3000-$5,000 ridding the environment of the smell of a decomposed body. They also clean hoarder and ‘filth houses’.

The difference between a hoarder and filth house is: Imagine if a hoarder collects decades worth various things and need a good cleaning. It becomes a ‘filth house’ when you incorporate hoarder tendencies and several lost and dead animals among the “collection”.

“That filth house was a big one. We filled seven or eight 30-yard dumpsters,” says Slager of a job that cost about $15,000. “They had meat in there from the 80s and dead animals.” Slager says.

Death Doesn’t Take A Holiday

Because of the unpredictability of death, a trusty pager is the bread and butter of cleaners. And with the job’s varying schedule, physical labor and firsthand trauma many cleaners have a high turnover rate. Metro does have therapists to help with the burnout.

“Here, when your feeling burnt, you can just go to another pat of the company,” Newton says.

Metro offers other services, like fire and smoke damage restoration and post flood structural drying that have won them an ‘A’ rating on the famed Angie’s List, an online rating service for contractor services.

A mid-sized company, like Metro, can have on average 20 employees on a rotating schedule.

“Sometimes its wait, wait and wait. Then next thing you know you’re getting’ slammed!” says Newton.

Joe McGowan usually doesn’t make any solid plans.

“I’ve missed birthdays and stuff, because the pager went off,” he says. “But hey, it is what it is.”

He also acknowledges that whatever day he’s having pales to what the families are going through.

People like McGowan, Newton and Slager are uncommon to have been in the business for so long, especially since the bio business is just less than 20-year-old.

Crime and trauma clean up is a specialty service spawned from the carpet cleaning business as did mold and mildew before it . In 1991 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued the Blood borne Pathogens Standard. OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recognized the need to regulate the cleaning and disposal of blood bourn pathogens, infectious pathogens and odor-causing bacteria that can linger long after the blood has left the body. These pathogens, like HIV and tuberculoses, can be deadly when not removed properly. For example, hepatitis B virus may be stable in dried blood for up to 7 days in 77 degree temperatures.

It became required individuals who are trained and certified in infectious waste handling and decontamination procedures do the job.

The new rules meant a new business and a niche market was born.

Cleaners acknowledge the dangers of their job.

“You can’t really think or dwell too much on a job,” Newton says. “You’ll never make it in this business.”

People are fascinated with the gore of the business. Newton doesn’t disappoint when asked about some of the worst jobs.

He usually tells of the time when the skin of decomposed body he was called to transport was falling off as he was trying to place the body in the body bag.

“That usually gets ‘em,” he says. “I also know of some folks that stopped eating rice because they resemble maggots we usually see.” He may seem flippant but he takes his job and safety seriously.

Trauma and crime scene clean-up companies offer highly trained services and adhere to strict rules guidelines and regulated by the CDC and OSHA that keep them safe. Many guidelines include hepatitis B vaccinations, yearly updated training, and contracted agreements with licensed Medical Waste companies. Metro extensively trains their employees with exercises, videos and a trip to the morgue.

Cleaning Up

When not at the firehouse, Newton can put in 15-hour days Metro, either on a job (they also cover towns and cities in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin), completing paperwork, or making free in-person quotes for a job.

He’d really like to hit up a Blues club, but just doesn’t have the time.

“I guess that’s why I’m single. This is my life,” he says with a whimsy of truth thru a faded tired laugh.

Newton gives the shop dog, Sobe, a friendly German shorthair, a pat on the head. The tan dog is a bit put off by the smell but still jumps up to greet the tired worker as if to say, ‘Welcome back’.

Newton heads to the bathroom and plunks his haggard pager on the sink.

That black electronic leash follows him everywhere.

Even on dates, if he had any.

He says he used to fish and go hunting, even had a few hobbies, but not anymore. Most nights he doesn’t have any plans, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like some time for himself. Maybe drink a glass of wine, cook a nice big plate of spaghetti, settle down and hope a good western is on TV and then get a well-deserved full nights’ sleep.

He heads to the shower to rid himself of the uniquely blended funk of sweat and death, hopefully he’s done for the day—It’ll go off again tonight.

—Elena Brown, 2008, Written for Medill School of Journalism Academy for Alternative Journalism Program


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That is a fantastic story. WOW. What a great subject!

  2. Intense.

    • Totally intense.

      Thanks for taking the time to read.

  3. Great story! I am the owner of a company much like “Metro” in Phoenix, AZ. I’ve got to tell you, for someone who does not earn a living as a CTS Decon Tech, you sure did write an accurate description of what it entails.

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