The blood was still wet. Two mornings earlier, on Friday, April 3, 2009, Jiverly Wong entered the American Civic Association with two pistols and a satchel of ammunition. He’d written his plans in a letter: “AT LEAST TWO PEOPLE GO WITH ME TO THE DUST OF THE EARTH.” He walked in, said nothing, and shot the immigration center’s receptionists and immigrants in a citizenship class. Then himself. He left his blood, the blood of the 13 he killed, and the blood of the four he critically wounded with the dust of the tile floor.
When Jim Coyle, president of Disaster Clean-Up, first walked into the Binghamton center that Sunday, he could tell from the bullet holes where Wong had stood and unloaded the 98 rounds. But Coyle says, almost three years later, dressed in a white button-down embroidered with the company logo and his circular face sun- reddened, that within 30 seconds he and the four other workers with him started discussing what they needed to do. There was a lot of blood. It was their job to clean it. And so as TV newspersons reported and passersby lay flowers outside, Coyle and the others put on disposable coveralls, chemical-resistant gloves, and full-face respirators. Then they got to it.
The police had removed the bodies and approved the scene for cleanup in accordance with protocol. Coyle doesn’t remember much furniture in the room where most of the victims died. But he recalls books soaked in blood. They put those in bags as red as cherry lollipops, marked with the biohazard symbol. Then they “red-bagged” each bag again and sealed them in labeled cardboard boxes. For the blood and body matter, they used mops, vacuum cleaners, steam cleaners, and disinfectants. Had the floor been carpeted and the blood seeped through, like in someone’s home, they would’ve cut the carpet out. Anything porous goes.
As they worked for about eight hours, aside from logistical talk, they chatted about normal topics—movies, sports. “You don’t dwell on what happened, how it happened, that kind of stuff,” Coyle says. “We were there for the business at hand, not to visualize what your imagination will run wild with.” Having other people there helped with that. And if it started to get to them, they left and took a walk, grabbed a soda. Cleared their heads. Many people vomit. But by the time Coyle got the call for the ACA, he’d already gone on dozens of death-scene cleanup jobs. And with each job, he became more desensitized. He also says he’s seen worse. He won’t say more.
Despite its macabre nature, crime and death-scene cleanup have become a popular occupation. Dee Countryman, who owns Mopheads Cleaning in Syracuse, says the first question any stranger asks her while she works a job isn’t “What happened?” It’s “Are you hiring?” But some of the recent entrants into the industry appear to amount to oblivious, “CSI”-glorifying wannabes, according to Rich Ross, president of the American Bio-Recovery Association. Ross says, “People see the show and they think, ‘Well, I can clean up.’ And everybody thinks they're a great cleaner." But while membership applications to the trade association have increased over the past few years (though Ross doesn't keep statistics), most applicants fail to met its insurance, experience, and training standards.
ABRA offers its own certificate-based training sessions for the paying public. Ross runs some of them, so people email him YouTube clips of the practices taught in other organizations’ seminars. In some videos, instructors used real animal blood and body parts without wearing proper protective equipment, exposing the demonstrator to blood-borne pathogens that could carry tuberculosis, hepatitis, or HIV. He’s seen other trainers, with their bare hands, picking up maggots that they’ve allowed to crawl through blood. “If you don’t do this work right, you’re going to get yourself, or your employees sick—or a consumer,” Ross says. One time, Coyle parked across the street to watch a company work. They'd asked for half of Disaster Clean-Up’s price to complete the job (which varies based on the kind and scale of the scene). They wore no protective equipment and tossed furniture covered in bodily fluids into a U-Haul trailer.
Current federal laws allow states to regulate the creation, transportation, and disposal of hazardous waste through their own environmental programs, in concordance with Department of Transportation and Occupational Safety and Health Administration laws. But only two states—California and Louisiana— classify death scenes separately. Under current New York State Department of Environmental Conservation rules, death- scene-cleanup companies reside outside of the higher standards of medical waste regulations: the red, biohazard-labeled bags; the biohazard-labeled cardboard boxes; permanent waste transporters; and authorized medical waste disposal facilities. If death-scene cleanup fell under medical protocols, workers couldn’t legally throw the blood, brain matter, and other remains into a dumpster (or a U-Haul).
While most companies follow medical protocols, according to Alan Woodard, an environmental program specialist at the DEC, there are plans to amend DEC regulations to fix the problem. Though the change must first overcome several administrative hurdles, if it passes, crime-scene-cleanup companies will need to register with the state. They’ll also face the much higher penalties given to those who break medical waste law. While rare, criminally mismanaging medical waste can cost up to $25,000 per day per incident. Ross hopes that the potential standards in New York and other states will stop the shoddy work.
Proper, safe procedures matter to Coyle. He can remember New York State code rules by number and Disaster Clean- Up also belongs to ABRA, which teaches medical-waste standards. But beyond the legalities, those men working without protective equipment irked him. They seemed to only care about the money. And that difference divides cleanup companies: some care about their employees and the traumatized; others don’t. Caring nurtures a desire to do the job right—which isn’t to say it’s not a business. “Is it profitable? Yeah, it’s profitable,” says Coyle. “It’s a valuable service.” But Coyle seems to genuinely hold his clients’ emotions dear. His voice lowers when discussing his own experiences or contemplating someone cleaning up the blood of a person he loves. But his tone hardens, his cadence quickens, and his squinted eyes darken behind his half-frame glasses when talking about apathetic, mindless cleaners. “It’s a shame that someone’s loved one commits suicide,” he says. “But you don’t want the mother of the person walking into that room to clean it up. We’re there to put it back together again.” He worked the ACA job for free. Everyone did.
But caring too much can hurt. There’s a practical gain for cleaners in knowing what they’re walking into (gunshot: splatter; hanging: contained; hemorrhaging: seepage), but beyond those specifics, knowing less helps them cope. Sometimes, the scenes linger. Dee Countryman, of Mopheads, struggles with nightmares. Coyle thinks about that one job—the worst one—from time to time. And with a litany of bloody tragedies plaguing his life, some details bring back memories for Ross, who still works cleanups. Stab wounds remind Ross of his brother, whose wife stabbed him in the heart, killing him. Gunshot wounds make Ross recall the time his brother-in- law shot Ross while attempting to murder his sister and her kids. And the time a shotgun blast killed his nephew. “There are times when people say, ‘Oh it doesn’t really bother me at all,’” Ross says. “But eventually it will come back to you.”
Though Ross says his close relationship to murder didn’t influence his decision to join the industry. Unlike the entrants today, he says, he and many of the long-time ABRA members entered this business out of compulsion—not desire. Years passed between the deaths in Ross’ family and the beginning of his career in this industry. He owned his own janitorial company and got into carpet cleaning. But when something traumatic happened to a client, they called him. “And I’ve always felt families and friends should not have to do that kind of stuff,” he explains. That’s why this profession exists: cleaning up after a loved one tortures you. When Coyle took over Disaster Clean-Up with his wife, he told his employees that they planned to remove death-scene cleanup from their business. He said to them, “Nobody wants to do this.” But one, Cheryl Seymour, said she would work the jobs, as long as someone went with her. So he did. Seymour was one of the others at the ACA.
Over time, cleaning blood gets easier. Coyle says he'd rather do the ACA again before another sewage backup (the smell may compare with that of human decomposition, which Countryman describes as a mix of ammonia and rotting cabbage—especially pungent in the summertime). Disaster Clean-Up also repairs sites after a fire or flooding. “You have to understand the nature of our business,” he says. “We deal in tragedy. So to me, that’s not out of the norm. It’s just a different tragedy.” Countryman puts it a bit more bluntly: “Blood is like mud.”
Sometimes though, family members must clean up on their own and face the medical and physical dangers themselves. Usually, homeowner’s insurance covers the cost. And if not, the New York State Office of Victim Services can pay up to $2,500 for the services—unless it’s a suicide; the statute denies payment when someone inflicts their own injuries. Countryman remembers getting a call from the grandparents of a teenager who killed himself. They lived on Social Security. They started cleaning the mess, but just couldn’t finish. So Countryman did the job for free.
The creations involved aren't the only reason why relying on death and tragedy for work is strange. Murder—the core of the business—is capricious. U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that while the annual number of homicide victims rose slightly in the early 2000s, it’s steeply fallen from the beginning of the 90s, including a decrease over the past five years, which Kim Brundage, a senior crime analyst with the Syracuse Police Department, says is the standard time period for crime analysis because of the many socioeconomic changes that happen over that span. The national trend holds in Syracuse. Last year, the city saw only 13 murders, down from a peak of 24 in 2008. This year, so far, the city has only had one. (Statistics for suicides over the last two years remain unavailable.)
The low murder rate combined with the influx of cleanup companies makes a death scene a rare commodity. “You can’t do a steady diet of this,” says Ross. Because of the lack of jobs, Countryman recently put Mopheads Cleaning up for sale. But business is fine for Coyle. There haven’t been too many death-scene jobs in Binghamton of late, unlike for his counterparts in New York City and Atlanta, who he says work bloody sites every day. But other types of disaster happens all the time.
Before Coyle and the others left the ACA, the center’s director asked them to delete the photos they took as documentation for the insurance company. They did. Coyle then left; ate dinner at a local diner with a NYC sister company’s owner, who’d come to work the job; and then he went home.