By Kristen Bates
Death greeted Bruce Ballard at the door of a small condo in East Boston on a rainy Friday morning. Unopened mail was piled in the doorway of 175 Brooks St. and 22 unheard voicemails blinked red on the answering machine in the living room. It was a moment frozen in time with the last remnants of life seeping through the carpet.
Ballard was there to wipe out the decay left behind. He’s a crime scene cleaner and owner of Bio One Boston.
According to police at the scene, she died of natural causes. She was an older woman that lived alone. A Seeburg Jukebox and CD collection of 50s and 60s music reflected a desire to return to youthful days long gone.
“Her body was here anywhere from seven to 14 days before we got the call to clean it up,” Ballard said, pointing to the hallway. It was the smell that led to the discovery of her decomposing remains.
Ballard got into the crime scene cleaning industry pretty recently but he’s not new to dealing with the aftermath of unfortunate events. Ballard and his colleague Jeremy Fontaine spend their days working full time as firefighters and first responders in Mansfield, MA., but they can’t turn away from the call even on their days off. That’s when they gear up in white hazmat suits, pull on hospital-grade gloves and respirators and get to work drudging through bodily fluids while the smell of death permeates the air.
It’s a smell that hits you the moment you walk into the scene. In the case of the East Boston condo, it came as soon as Ballard passed the threshold of the front door, where mounds of large flies covered the walls in the living room and kitchen.
“It’s not the worst smell I’ve encountered,” said Fontaine. “Cat urine is the worst.”
“That haunts your dreams,” Ballard agreed. “I had that smell stuck in my nose for days. You couldn’t even take your mask off for a second and, if you did, it was stuck in there. You had to light your nose hair on fire to get rid of it.”
Ballard set up “ground zero” just past the front door at the edge of the living room. The area was an untouched piece of flooring about five feet wide where Ballard could put his equipment down as far away from the biohazards as possible. He lugged in plastic tubs filled with cleaners, personal protective gear and trash bags. The front door was left open so the smell and flies would leave.
Ballard suited up in the white hazmat suit before putting on two layers of gloves and his respirator.
The body had been picked up by the time Ballard arrived for his part of the job, but fluids remained, tracing a path on the tile and carpet outlining where the older woman had been lying for days. Human feces sat in the living room in front of an old brown recliner. Ballard had his work cut out for him.
“If you look closely,” said Ballard, “you can see an outline of where her arm and legs were when she died. She might have been trying to use the bathroom and fell forward.”
The smell and substance of what Ballard is cleaning can get overwhelming at times. These cleanups can last for hours and put you in a “really bad dark place” because of what you’re cleaning. For them, having a sense of humor can help ease the tension in these situations.
“We had one [cleanup] where the whole time we kept telling ourselves ‘it’s just chocolate sauce, it’s just chocolate sauce’,” laughed Ballard.
Both Ballard and Fontaine say that the summer time is when they receive the most calls. The heat makes the smell of a decaying body more noticeable than when someone dies in the cold of winter.
“Even something [as] simple as grandma dying of natural causes inside her house is going to make the aftermath worse because it’s hotter,” said Ballard. “Whereas, in the middle of January, she could probably stay there for three months and nobody would notice.”
The woman’s family hasn’t been inside the condo since she died. Ballard moves her couch and side tables outside starting the beginnings of a pile of biohazardous debris that will have to be hauled away to be destroyed, then salvages what he can. Family photos are put aside along with small trinquets. He’s not sure what they want to keep so he makes sure he doesn’t throw anything away that isn’t contaminated.
It’s hard not to feel sad at the aspect that she died alone. It took a timespan of one to two weeks for anyone to find her. Why didn’t anyone check in on her?
Ballard starts to cut up the carpet around the bodily fluids and feces. Carpet that hasn’t been contaminated is cut into larger strips and rolled up to be taken to the dump. The carpet that’s been soiled is sliced into smaller squares and placed in a thick red trash bag designated for hazardous waste. All of the red trash bags will be sent to a local company that specializes in getting rid of biohazard and medical wastes.
According to Thomas Licker, president of American Bio Recovery Association, this is the type of process that separates the professional crime scene cleaners from the less professional ones.
All it takes is a two-hour course on blood borne pathogens to be certified as a crime scene cleaner. “It’s the wild wild west out there,” said Licker about the crime scene cleaning industry. “There’s no barriers to entry in this market.”
While there are no federal regulations in this industry, regulations can vary from state to state. The state of Massachusetts, for example, requires all biohazardous waste to be bagged in a red bag that is resistant to moisture and strong enough to resist tears. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, pathological waste has to be disposed of at an “approved incineration facility.”
After Ballard cuts up all of the carpet in the condo, he removes the tiles in the bathroom and places them in the designated red trash bags. He’s been working on this cleanup for around five hours and the condo looks almost move-in ready.
The furniture is gone and the hoard of flies has moved on to their next source of food. Ballard packs up and finally gets to remove his hazmat suit. He was drenched in sweat and exhausted from the day’s work.
They deal with these types of cleanups on a consistent basis but they would rather be doing this than working in an office setting. “I could work in corporate Boston with the degrees I have but it’s just not for me,” said Fontaine.
It’s a grueling job that has cleaners like Ballard scraping human remains off of walls and floors. The job requires manual labor, the ability to handle awful smells and, according to Ballard, a sense of humor.
“It’s a tough job,” said Fontaine. “Somebody’s gotta do it.”
For those aspiring to become crime scene cleaners, Ballard has one question: “What the hell’s a matter with you?”