GORHAM, Maine — On one occasion they found a tooth in a shoe under a stereo cabinet. On another, a piece of scalp the width of a teacup under a piece of furniture across the room. Sometimes dark red blood spatters and brain matter turn up in multiple rooms, around corners and inside drawers.
It takes a certain kind of person to work for the Gorham-based BioSpecialists LLC. He or she must have both an unusually strong stomach and sensitive demeanor.
BioSpecialists CEO William York, son of a longtime funeral home director, describes his company as one “nobody wants to know about.”
“There’s no way these people should ever have to do what we do,” York said of his clients.
BioSpecialists is in the unpopular but necessary business of what it describes as “death and trauma cleanup.” Among the team’s most regular jobs are scenes where an individual has committed suicide, and within that subset, scenes where a person has shot him- or herself.
The company, whose services are sought after as far away as Florida, exists in a kind of shadow in modern society. While the business does have trucks with company logos on them, its responders are just as likely to approach jobs in unmarked vehicles.
In-home suicides or unattended deaths are generally unreported in the media, and the homes where they happen don’t appear different on the exterior to the neighbors outside except for perhaps a brief flurry of police activity.
But then there’s that time and space after the police investigators have finished and the home must be made habitable again. It’s a dark period that’s often overlooked from the outside, but somebody has to rappel into that nightmarish world.
Because life must go on.
“Imagine having to come in after a family member committed suicide and then thinking you had to clean up afterward,” said BioSpecialists technician Rob Hunt. “We can come in and take it back [to the state the home was in] before the tragedy happened.”
As York said, his company does work most people never think about doing. Many people plan for spring cleanings or to help friends move, but the extreme jobs BioSpecialists specialize in largely — soberly — come without warning.
“What we deal with, there was no way families could prepare for it,” he said.
York, who has also worked as a body removal specialist in the Portland area, knows all too well what families are going through when a loved one commits suicide.
He said his brother killed himself 14 years ago in his car, and remained there for more than a week in the summer weather before he was discovered.
Even for a family well versed in the business of death, the experience was jarring.
“My father and I had to get his personal effects out of that car,” York recalled. “There was nobody to call.”
Nearly a decade and a half later, York has established a company to give others placed in that tragic position somebody to call.
Another day at the office
There aren’t many people who have the qualities needed to be a BioSpecialists LLC technician. In addition to suicide, homicide and unattended death scene cleanups, the company cleans up homes of hoarders, and will soon unveil a sister company, BioCare Environmental Services, specializing in medical waste remediation.
None of the above are tasks for the faint of heart.
“We have people who go on one job and never come back,” said Rob Simmons, BioSpecialists operations officer and the longest-serving employee. “People will say, ‘Oh, I can do that. I’ve cleaned up dog poop.’ It’s not the same.”
While there is sometimes human and animal excrement that does need to be cleaned during a BioSpecialists job, nothing compares to the odor of decomposition or the work of wiping up small parts of brain and skull, York said.
While disaster scene responders, like those who are deployed to rescue survivors from building wreckage after an earthquake, can put strong medicinal creams like Vicks VapoRub under their noses to block out the smells, York said his employees need to be able to smell to make sure they have successfully removed the odor at a job.
“Take a cheap piece of meat, put it in a Ziplock bag, throw it up on the deck for a week, then open it up and take a good whiff,” he said. “That’s another day at the office for us.”
As a result, York seeks police officers and firemen, who have training to deal with death scenes and dangerous environments, to work on BioSpecialists teams during their days off from area departments.
BioSpecialists technicians approach job sites in HazMat-like suits and with heavy amounts of powerful disinfectants to battle dangerous bacteria that can be found at a scene where human remains have been discovered. And depending on how the individual died, those remains can be found scattered great distances from the exact spot of the death.
“If there’s a pool of blood in one room, that doesn’t mean there isn’t more material in another room,” said Sears Edwards, a veteran technician for the company and a member of the Gorham police department.
“When we go into a place, we don’t know which doors were open [when the death occurred], or whether there was a file cabinet open at the time,” York said.
On one occasion in which the company was hired to clean up a scene in which a man shot himself in the head, Edwards said he discovered blood in four different rooms in the home, one 45 feet from the location of the gunshot.
Then there was the tooth in the shoe under the stereo cabinet, and the piece of scalp under the furniture across the room.
“If we miss a spot the size of a pencil lead on a wall, we never should have gone in there,” York said.
Sometimes, BioSpecialists technicians must tear up carpets or break into drywall to see where blood has soaked through, kill the bacteria and eliminate odors. The technicians must also be wary of clostridium difficile spores and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections — more commonly known as the bacteria c.diff and MRSA, respectively.
“This is as much of a science as a mop-and-pail show,” York said.
A science, he said, and a diplomatic mission of sorts.
The company CEO said potential clients often ask for over-the-phone estimates, but he said prices range wildly depending on the environment where the death took place, what building materials are used in the room, which floor the scene is on, how the death happened and a number of other variables. So York does not publicize a price list that might constrain the company or mislead potential customers. But he said most home insurance policies cover the jobs in the cases of cleanups relating to suicides or homicides.
In addition to their thoroughness and strong stomach, York said he needs employees who are tactful.
“These families are dealing with rollercoasters of emotions,” he said.
“I look at it as if it was my own family. How would I want to be talked to? How would I want to be treated?” Edwards said. “You have to be compassionate. You have to.”