Originally created 06/03/04

Businesses clean up in aftermath of crime



Death terrified Harold Kovach as a child.

It wasn't until years later, when he managed a commercial hog farm in Virginia and witnessed the cycle of life, that he realized death happens to every living thing.

He said he came to realize it wasn't so scary after all. As Mr. Kovach overcame his fear, he left hog farming behind and moved on to a discreet business that only those with strong stomachs can excel at.

Mr. Kovach, 41, is one of a small but growing group of entrepreneurs who have the unpleasant job of scouring, bleaching, disinfecting and removing all signs of violent or unattended deaths from homes, vehicles and public places.

Throughout the country, professional cleanup businesses thrive, said Bob Lintzenich, a training specialist for Servpro, a cleanup business based in Gallatin, Tenn. Some companies focus exclusively on cleaning biohazards - blood, other bodily fluids and decomposed bodies left over from crimes - while others also renovate structures ravaged by fire or flood, Mr. Lintzenich said.

These businesses - the ones no one thinks of until tragedy strikes - have been around for years, says Jeff Daniel, a co-owner of CSRA Bio-Clean, of Augusta.

Many of these companies originated in larger cities in California and New York and eventually spread to smaller cities, said Mr. Daniel, 40.

CSRA Bio-Clean was conceived two years ago as Mr. Daniel and his business partner, Paul Duckworth, flipped through the television channels and saw a program about crime scene cleanup businesses.

The two firefighters, then with Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department Station 17, did some research and discovered there were few, if any, businesses exclusively cleaning up biohazards in the area.

A few more have sprung up since then, but the profession is not for everyone.

"You have to be mentally prepared to do the job, and when you leave the job, you have to be mentally prepared to remember you have another life," said Mr. Kovach, the owner of Augusta-based Independent Crime Cleaning Resources. "Sometimes it lingers on your mind, and that's normal."

Murders involving children affect him most, Mr. Kovach says. That's when the Seventh-Day Adventist turns to God and his pastor to give him the strength to continue providing such a gruesome, but needed, service to grieving families.

A KEY ASPECT of the business is providing the assurance that any evidence of the violent death of a loved one will be erased, he said.

It would be psychologically catastrophic for a family member to clean up the remains of a beloved relative, Mr. Kovach said. Providing a comforting service to the family is perhaps the most important part of his job, he says.

If Mr. Kovach, who travels to 12 states along the East Coast for cleanups, can't make it to a crime scene, he will recommend other businesses closer to the area.

For him, it's all about the welfare of those left behind.

"It's sad to know people die, but it's good to know that someone can take care of the situation to relieve the family members of having to do this," Mr. Kovach said.

Advertising for such a business can be sensitive, so both Mr. Kovach and Mr. Daniel depend on word of mouth from those who deal with death on a daily basis.

Each time Columbia County authorities handle a gruesome death, County Coroner Grover Tuten gives three business cards bearing the names of local crime scene cleanup businesses to the families of the victim or the owner of the property where the person died.

Funeral home employees also provide the names of cleanup businesses to grieving family members, Mr. Daniel said.

Answering services or company employees reach Mr. Daniel and Mr. Kovach 24 hours a day for cleanup emergencies.

The job isn't quite full-time. Mr. Daniel says he cleans local crime scenes four or five times a month, while Mr. Kovach travels to different states to clean 10-12 days out of the month.

The remainder of the year, Mr. Daniel is a firefighter with Station 17; Mr. Kovach works odd jobs.

BESIDES THE GRIM settings to which crime scene cleanup employees become accustomed, the employees must be ready for hazardous environments.

Mr. Lintzenich says crime scene cleanup companies will not send employees to clean biohazards without the proper training.

Cleanup businesses must follow regulations that state and federal organizations such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have outlined to safely remove blood-borne pathogens and other harmful substances found in bodily fluids, Mr. Lintzenich says.

To protect against viruses such as HIV and hepatitis B, which can live for hours outside the human body, employees wear full-body protective suits and gloves and use respirators to breathe, Mr. Kovach says.

Mr. Kovach even breaks ammonia capsules in front of his employees to determine whether their respirators are airtight.

If they smell ammonia, there is a leak in the respirator, which could allow workers to breathe harmful material at the crime scene.

"Safety is such a key factor in this," Mr. Kovach said. "It can cost you your life."

The work is labor-intensive. The employees remove odors from the air with an ozone generator and rip out stained carpet.

They dispose of human tissue, bone and other waste in containers clearly marked "biohazard."

Because federal and state agencies regulate the disposal of biohazardous waste, Mr. Daniel and Mr. Kovach haul the boxes to a designated pickup spot.

A biomedical waste company then picks up the waste to transport it to another site, where the material is incinerated.

If you can stand the work, the business can be a lucrative one.

Mr. Daniel says his company charges $500 for the first hour of a cleanup.

Then, the rate increases to $200 per hour per working employee.

For Mr. Kovach, a crime scene cleanup can cost anywhere from $200 to thousands of dollars, he says.

But the real payment, Mr. Kovach says, is remembering those he has helped and looking forward to those he will help in the future to overcome family tragedy.

"It's the people, the family members that I really care about," Mr. Kovach said.

Reach Kate Lewis at (706) 823-3215 or kate.lewis@augustachronicle.com.