She couldn't stand to see her son's blood splattered on a brick wall,so Julia Dunkins tried her hardest to clean the mess his killer left behind.
“I took a brush and cleaned the wall because it just seemed like it wouldn't go away,” she said,reflecting on the murder that took place 16 years ago.
Dunkins,executive director of Survivors of Homicide Inc.,in Washington,said family members are often left with the task of scrubbing away blood and body parts after the police,medics,firefighters and coroners leave.
From deaths and destruction,a thriving industry has emerged.
Crime and trauma scene decontamination companies – or CTS decon – have been around for less than two decades. When someone dies,either violently or naturally,these companies vow to make themselves available day or night.
Public awareness about the services is still low,company owners say. That may change,however,with the new Amy Adams,Alan Arkin,Emily Blunt movie,”Sunshine Cleaning,” in which the three form a CTS decon company.
Interviews with several certified companies revealed that there is concern about “mop and bucket brigades,” a derogatory term for janitorial companies or freelancers that don't know how to properly disinfect and dispose of a mess.
Authorities don't want to be accused of corruption or liable for referring a bad crew,so they refrain from telling families about the services.
And when tragedy strikes in people's homes,finding time to do research is not always an option.
Aaron Ruslander,whose company,Chesapeake Crime Cleaners,is based in Huntingtown,Md.,says marketing is tough. He gives cards and brochures to apartment managers,but many find him through word of mouth.
“People are either intrigued by it,or totally turned off by it,” he said.
Barry Owens,owner of Bay Decon in Norfolk,Va.,said he has his own challenges.
“A hard job would be where a woman committed suicide and she's got her kid's pictures on the walls and the rubber ducks in the bathroom. You realize she left behind a husband and kids,” he said. “Just knowing that the kids are growing up without a mother.”
Company owners and their crews have to be able put up with gruesome sights on the job,but still must have a soft touch when dealing with families. Benjamin Lichtenwalner and Ryan Sawyer founded Biotrauma,based in Gainesville,Ga.,and emphasize a compassionate approach.
After finishing a job,the company sends clients a copy of “Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul.”
The two Marines worked for the Mortuary Affairs Division in Iraq and prepared bodies of fallen service members to be taken stateside. Talking with the escorts who took the bodies back,often friends of the deceased,taught them how to treat someone in grief,Lichtenwalner said.
Because they become part of the family's life,Biotrauma looks out for details. A teenager's suicide shattered one family's holiday,as the Christmas tree caught the brunt of the gun blast. The company had to throw away the tree but watched the family's eyes light up when workers brought a new one to the house.
Dress Code Required
On the job,crew members look like “a cross between a doctor and a smurf,” Sawyer said.
Federal regulations require workers to wear protective equipment: one-time-use blue suits that cover the body from head to toe,latex gloves,face shields and white,disposable boot covers. To protect their lungs from fumes,cleaners wear respirators.
The cleaning process begins with an enzyme that breaks down proteins in the blood and body fluid. Although the enzyme wipes away the appearance of blood,the surface is not sanitary until workers spray it with a hospital-grade disinfectant. Any fabrics that come in contact with blood or body fluids must be removed.
Experts say that spot-checking the area with a bright light or using test strips to check for blood and fluids left behind is a must.
When death occurs,blood and body fluids can seep into floors and walls. An apple-sized spot of blood on a carpet could mean at least three times that amount below the surface.
Tile bathrooms are rumored to be easier to clean,but once grout or vinyl flooring absorbs blood and fluids,toilets and vanities have to be removed to ensure the area can be disinfected.
Simply steam cleaning carpets and scrubbing the base of bathroom or kitchen fixtures does not eliminate the possibility of infection. All blood and body fluids are considered biohazardous by federal standards because of their ability to carry blood-borne pathogens such as HIV and Hepatitis B and C.
Almost all types of insurance – homeowners,business,property and automotive – cover cleanup services,and several owners say they have done some jobs for little or no cost for those without it.
Insurance companies are billed upwards of $150 per hour for cleanup services,before restoration costs. Some charge up to $600 per hour.
An estimated 200 to 300 certified firms operate nationwide,but because the cleanup business is still evolving,numbers are hard to pin down.
If cleanup companies existed at the time a man shot Julia Dunkins' 24-year-old son,Jonathan,six times,she didn't know about them.
“It's something that is greatly needed in every place,” she said. “I've smelled death. Death doesn't go away that fast.”