When someone dies, someone else has to take care of the mess.
When someone dies, someone else has to take care of the mess. That's where Tommy Boudreaux comes in.
By Eileen Loh-Harrist Photos by Cheryl Gerber
Gary Kern and Louise Voros gear up from head to toe in lightweight Tyvek suits. Kern glances over to the house next door. 'They know something's going on,' he says. 'They can smell it.'
'The initial trauma is knowing that your loved one is dead. Knowing that they have to go in and see the conditions that are left behind is another. It's not something that should be left for a family member to handle.' -- Tommy Boudreaux
In the death room, Tommy Boudreaux loads trash into red bags marked 'Biohazardous Materials.' He has removed the cushions on the couch where the woman died. 'People don't understand about body fluids,' he says.
You can smell death outside the tiny house in Chalmette: a thick, sweetish odor of decay.
Outside in the sunlight, Tommy Boudreaux pulls a gas mask over his face. "I'd rather be at the beach," he jokes. He heads through the kitchen door and pulls it closed behind him.
Back outside, Boudreaux's employees, Gary Kern and Louise Voros, gear up from head to toe in lightweight Tyvek suits. Kern glances over to the house next door, where curious faces periodically appear in the window. "They know something's going on," he says. "They can smell it."
Balmy mornings like this can push the spectre of death so far away from the living that it seems unimaginable. For the past few weeks in this neighborhood, life has flowed seemingly without a ripple. Children ride their bikes on the sidewalks, cars pull in and out of driveways, dogs yap in back yards. In the midst of this normalcy, one person has slipped away so quietly that no one, for days, knew she was dead.
Boudreaux and his team came into the picture not long after someone noticed a strange silence about the square brick home. Officers found one of the house's two residents, a woman in her 50s, dead on the sofa, a victim of a cerebral hemorrhage.
She had lived with, and cared for, an elderly man -- an arrangement apparently born from financial convenience -- and he was still in the house. The roommate was ill and suffered from dementia, and he hadn't moved far from the corpse. Evidence of his various ailments -- blood, urine, feces -- had soiled blankets, chairs and carpet.
Officers took the man into protective custody, and they summoned the coroner's office to come get the body. The rest is left for Boudreaux to clean up.
Boudreaux's company, Clean Scene Services, is based in Belle Chasse and is one of about 175 companies across the United States that specialize in cleaning up "biohazardous scenes." That's a polite term used to describe messes that involve potentially dangerous organic matter such as body tissues, fluids and waste. Such companies respond to suicides, murders, accidents or acts of violence, floods, fires -- anything in which biohazards are present. It's the type of company you hope you never have to call, but if you need it, you're glad it's around.
"We've handled everything from squalor conditions to multi-million-dollar estates, motor homes and late-model sportscars," says Boudreaux, an affable 37-year-old with black-rimmed glasses and black hair flecked with silver. "These situations come in all different sizes, all races, creeds and colors, and from all financial environments."
Boudreaux had spent 10 years as a certified surgical assistant in Slidell when he learned about the burgeoning bio-recovery industry. "I was at a crossroads in my life," he says. "I was going through a divorce and I had two small children. I read an article in People magazine about a gentleman out of Phoenix doing this type of work. And I took a moment and saw before me there were families hit with this type of traumatic situation and they need this service. I researched it, and there were none in New Orleans." Boudreaux figured his medical experience would be good background for a business that requires extensive training in blood-borne pathogens, safe disposal methods and other issues related to ridding an area of biohazards. As a neurosurgeon's assistant, he'd seen his share of blood and gore. He was confident he'd be able to handle every aspect of the job, and launched Clean Scene in November 1996.
Three months later, Clean Scene got its first case -- a handgun suicide in Lakeview. That's when Boudreaux first understood the gravity of his new field. He would be cleaning up the messes that people sometimes leave behind when they exit the world, and every case would put him into intimate contact with human suffering.
"The initial trauma is knowing that your loved one is dead. Knowing that they have to go in and see the conditions that are left behind is another. It's not something that should be left for a family member to handle. They are not trained or visually prepared to clean up what they are about to see. The term 'somebody blew their head off' -- it is literal.
"It's real, and it's sad," Boudreaux says. "We're pulling everything from teeth to skull fragments out of the ceiling."
To the average person, the condition of someone dying and then going for days without being discovered sounds gruesome and sad. Those in the bio-recovery business call it a "decomp," and it occurs with depressing regularity.
On this day in Chalmette, the house looks presentable outside. Inside it's squalor. Respirator masks designed to filter out organic vapors and gases block out the stench that permeates each room.
"As long as I don't smell it, I'm fine," Boudreaux confides. "As much as we do this work, I will gag and start barfing at the drop of a hat. Once you smell a death scene or once you smell blood, it's a smell you'll never forget."
Kern and Voros begin scooping up rotten food and trash. Boudreaux heads to the tiny TV room, the "death room," to assess what he needs to do. He glances at a photo of a middle-aged blonde woman, wearing a graduation cap and gown and smiling. "That's probably her," Boudreaux says. "It's sad."
The phone rings. "And people are still calling her."
Someone has put a paint-spattered radio in the living room, and Kern hums aloud to the Pink Floyd song "Us and Them" as he loads blankets and pillows into a garbage bag. Except for the smell, the three could be a bunch of friends moving someone into a new home.
Ordinary belongings take on significance when a person's death is out of the ordinary. Hanging around the home are framed diplomas from several institutions, ranging from vocational schools to an Ivy League college. The diplomas reflect different stages of a life: a maiden name, a married name, a second married name.
A three-year-old newspaper clipping tacked to the kitchen bulletin board describes the wedding of her son and daughter-in-law, who live up North. The son plans to come to Chalmette in a few days to retrieve his mother's belongings. A package from the couple sits unopened, its postmark several days old. A never-to-be-finished needlepoint project lies on a table next to a sewing machine. There's a collectible Jacqueline Kennedy Christmas ornament, still in the box.
In the bathroom is a heavily used litterbox. White cat hair coats the furniture and a soiled bowl in the kitchen says "Attack Cat," but no animal is in sight. No one knows what happened to it.
Nothing in this woman's life had indicated, up until now, that it would end like this. One wonders how it can fall into others' lots to have their entire lives sifted through and boxed up by a company whose sole purpose is to clean up the kinds of mess no one else wants to touch. In the death room, Boudreaux loads trash into red bags marked "Biohazardous Materials." He has removed the cushions on the couch where the woman died. A clear liquid glistens in a sheen on the plastic top of the sofa's hide-a-bed. "That's her body fluids," Boudreaux says.
"People don't understand about body fluids," he says. "Body fluids have enzymes ... all the same enzymes that break down our food. When it comes into contact with things it just starts breaking them down like it would food."
Enzymes have seeped through the sofa and have eaten away at the couch springs; mold has grown throughout the piece of furniture, and the sofa-bed mattress is stained all the way through with reddish fluids. "We're going to have to wrap that sucker up like a Christmas gift," Boudreaux says. He plans to re-carpet and re-paint the room. "Leave it in much better condition than how we found it," he says.
As the team leaves, a white cat darts across the street and hides under a car.
Not many people talk about what Boudreaux calls "secondary trauma": the distress experienced by loved ones who must deal with practical aspects of the death or accident, including cleaning it up.
"For over 15 years I've spoken to survivors who talked about how horrific it is," says Frank Campbell, executive director of the Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center.
When Campbell first started working with crisis victims, he was startled to learn no one is responsible for cleaning up gory trauma scenes. "It's assumed that the police, EMS or fire department is going to handle the cleanup, but they don't have the budget for that. The family members are left literally picking up the pieces, and that is a trauma. No one should have to go through that. It is a punishment above and beyond the suicide."
Campbell has recommended Boudreaux's company to bereaved families for years. "First, it eases trauma. Second, it's a better cleanup, and third, it's more respectable."
Campbell recalls one instance where a death occurred in the garage, and stunned neighbors and relatives watched as firefighters simply hosed the victim's blood down the driveway into the gutter. "They've already had the trauma," Campbell says. "To have the cleanup handled with an amount of respect makes all the difference."
Explains Boudreaux: "You don't just go in there with a mop and a bucket and say, 'OK, ma'am, just point me in the direction of the blood.'"
In fact, Boudreaux recently took a course called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), a two-day workshop for law enforcement officers, emergency medical technicians and others who regularly come into contact with suicide cases. "It doesn't make us counselors," Boudreaux says, "but it does extend the resources."
Clean Scene's caseload is about five to eight jobs per month -- a small number considering it was the first bio-recovery business in New Orleans and is the only local member of the American Bio-Recovery Association (at least one similar company has sprung up, though it is not listed with ABRA). Given the need for its services, Clean Scene should, presumably, have more business than it could handle.
One reason it doesn't is that city regulations prevent public employees such as police and coroners from promoting specific private companies. Some do tell distraught families that companies like Clean Scene exist, and recommend they look in the phone book.
That's why Boudreaux has to hustle. He's developed a rapport with police officers, firefighters, deputies, coroner's employees and EMTs, telling them about Clean Scene's work. He gives them flyers with the toll-free numbers of nonprofits including the American Bio-Recovery Association. Public employees can distribute those. Boudreaux also scours TV and print news for stories of families who might need his services. If he sees the address, he might just show up. "We'll ask if the scene has been cleaned," he says. "We ask if it would be okay for us to leave our literature." Most of the time, he says, the families are glad to see him.
"You can't advertise it in the traditional market sense," Boudreaux explains. "You can't put up a billboard that says, 'If someone in your family dies a horrible death, call us!'"
Lately, Boudreaux has been tweaking Clean Scene's image. He's revamped his logo, which began as a bold pattern featuring yellow-and-black crime scene tape. He now favors muted tones and comforting illustrations like the ones featured on the brochures for hospices and funeral homes.
He's also redesigning the Clean Scene van so it's more discreet; Boudreaux says he's more aware of how the vehicle might appear to others when it pulls up to a home or company. "I'm a businessman," he says, "but I'm also a person."
The growing bio-recovery industry is trying to define its place in society, says Kent Berg, president of the American Bio-Recovery Association (ABRA), which has about 60 members. He started the organization in 1996 with five members, and says the industry boomed in 2000, topping out at about 272 companies, many of which have dissolved.
"Many people think they can run out and start a [bio-recovery] company, and so they jump into the business. And then they find that's not the case," Berg says. "There is a huge turnover. There is probably about a 50 percent turnover in the last five years."
Why so volatile? Some owners fall victim to the advertising problems, while others can't stomach the reality of the job, says Berg, who owns a bio-recovery company in South Carolina.
"I think people who have been in businesses that are cleaning-related feel that they could tackle this aspect of cleaning, and they probably imagine blood spots and minor things that you might associate with nosebleeds," he says.
"Instead, they're overwhelmed when faced with a shotgun suicide where every square inch of a 400-square foot room is covered with some type of liquid, solid, skull fragments, brain tissue, fatty tissue. All of that."
Berg and Boudreaux also say they must factor in the costs of licensing, bonding and insurance. Clean-up jobs generally run between $1,000 and $2,500, with homeowners' insurance usually covering the costs.
"Why is it so costly?" asks Boudreaux. "Liability." He explains that customers hire him to not only clean up the mess, but also take on the legal responsibility involved. "When I take a job, I'm assuming all the liability. A large percentage of the public, as well as business sectors, really aren't aware of the health and life threat in these situations. ... There are bodily fluids that are colorless and odorless that will kill you just as quickly as something that is apparent to the human eye. Fragments of bone that are sharp as razors."
Boudreaux mentions the house in Chalmette where the woman died on her couch. That landlord, he says, had originally resisted hiring a bio-recovery company.
"He's thinking, shoot, put the couch out for the regular garbageman to pick up. He's not talking about the liability. He's got insurance, but he's got a $1,000 deductible and he doesn't want to pay it. "She died on the sofa in the back room, and she decomposed. She'd been dead about four days. I said, 'Sir, look what you're doing. You're talking about bringing out something that's hazardous to people's health, and exposing the whole neighborhood to it.'
"He said, 'I see couches outside all the time.' And I said, 'Yeah, but not ones that people have died and decomposed in.'"
Every trauma scene has a story, some more apparent than others. It's now another beautiful, sunny day. Voros and Kern are working on a suicide, a young man who shot himself in the head in his bathtub. He lived in a Metairie apartment complex behind a busy shopping center. The Clean Scene workers arrive to find the victim's belongings stacked in the living room. No one is sure who did this: the victim himself, or someone tidying up after his death.
Everything about the apartment indicates he lived alone, yet there's a large framed photo of a man and woman dressed in traditional ethnic costumes, their arms wrapped around each other, beaming at the camera. Nearby is a ceramic statue of a bride kissing a groom. One wonders if this was his wife -- what happened to her? Did her absence contribute to this suicide?
"OK, Gary," Voros says to Kern. "Let's rock and roll."
In this home, the death room is the bathroom. A pillow soaked with dried and semi-dried blood lies in the tub, indicating the victim had placed it behind his head before he shot himself. Voros rips the pillow off the bottom of the tub, releasing rivulets of blood that stream down into blackish-red pools.
"I don't see an exit or an entrance," Voros says, examining the pillow. "It's hard to speculate. When we have others, we know where the bullets went. This is really tame, very well-contained. He was very neat."
"He didn't want to cause anybody a bunch of grief, is what I think," Kern adds.
Despite the bloody pools in the tub, the bathroom itself is pristine. Fluffy cranberry towels match the toilet seat cover. A toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss sit by the sink, all new-looking. Other toiletries look equally brand-new: mouthwash, shaving cream, shampoo and soap -- as if the victim had just bought these products within a week of committing suicide.
Voros pulls plastic gloves over her manicured hands and begins placing the toiletries into garbage bags. She talks how she got involved in this work. "I've known Tommy for 20 years, and when he started this business, he knew I was a really meticulous person and I had some medical background."
Voros says she's never been adversely affected by the scenes she's had to clean. "It gives me closure, you know? You do a job and you finish, and you go on to the next one."
Boudreaux finds satisfaction from his work, too, but for different reasons. He recounts one instance where he arrived at a house to find a little girl wailing about her teddy bear, which was still in the room where her father had just shot himself in the head.
"I can remember distinctly that child's teddy bear littered with brain matter," he says. "And all she kept saying was, 'I want my teddy bear.' We restored it, and I was able to get that teddy bear back to that little girl."
It's those kinds of situations that send Boudreaux straight home to hold his kids, 8-year-old Alexandria and 6-year-old Brandon. He says that in a strange way, he's grateful for the opportunity to come so close to human tragedy day in and day out. It makes him realize how lucky he is.
"I know my kids wonder sometimes why I hug and kiss them so much. I hug and kiss them a lot more, and I'm not afraid to tell friends and family members that I love them.
"I have learned that life is short," Boudreaux says. "Very short."