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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette second responders Illustration - Photo by Nikki Dawes

Jeremy Lemon was aching for a change. He was working long, monotonous hours as an automotive service consultant and wanted something that gave him the room to help people.

He found his answer through a family friend. The friend, a detective who was familiar with Aftermath's work, told him to apply for a job as a field technician. Aftermath, among others, is a nationwide company that specializes in cleaning up the biohazardous materials left by the dead and the dying.

When he got the job three months later, Lemon, now 29, had found his place. He likes the break from the norm Aftermath provides and likes traveling, which he does a lot of as a regional manager.

"We have a unique opportunity to truly help people that are going through this because some people may never go through it, but when you do, it's the worst day of your life," Lemon said.

He supervises the Arkansas office in Sherwood, which has three workers who load up their truck and go anytime there's a call after an incident in Arkansas, Tennessee or Missouri.

Family members can phone in for a cleanup in the wake of a loved one's death. Sometimes law enforcement officers, who like Lemon's friend are familiar with Aftermath's work recommend the service, said Tina Bao, senior vice president of marketing and strategy at Aftermath.

Sgt. John Murphy of the Sherwood Police Department said crime scene investigators were not aware of Aftermath's services, even though the office is just over a mile down the road.

"We haven't dealt with one [crime scene] that had biohazardous material so bad that we couldn't release it to property owners" in a long time, Murphy said.

LEFT TO THE PROPERTY OWNERS

The decision on how to clean up is left to the property owner unless the scene is particularly grisly and dangerous, Murphy added.

On rare occasions, Aftermath workers clean hoarders' homes -- where personal possessions are piled high and can pose a health hazard, Lemon said.

"Hoarding is kind of far and in between," Lemon said. "We typically will get hoarding jobs if there is a biological hazard there as well."

Lemon has worked jobs across Arkansas -- places like Bull Shoals, Fayetteville, West Memphis and Fort Smith, each time making the trek from his home office in Kansas City, Mo.

By the time companies such as Aftermath arrive at the scene, the body is usually gone; it has already been inspected by a coroner or medical examiner; the death certificate has been signed; and preparations are being made for cremation or burial. What is left are mere traces of what happened.

"We think of ourselves as second responders," Bao said.

Prices for the work vary widely -- from about $1,000 to $50,000 -- based on the number of affected rooms, the level of damage, any complications and how long it took for the body to be found, Bao said.

Costs could be covered by homeowners insurance or state crime victim reparations boards, according to the online Aftermath price list.

TIME OF DEATH ESTIMATED

In the case of unattended deaths -- which make up about one of every four deaths Aftermath tends to and are often the bodies that take the longest to find -- medical examiners estimate the time of death based on the stage of decomposition.

There are four stages of decomposition, the first beginning minutes after death with an excess buildup of carbon dioxide and ending with skeletonization, which can take months.

Examiners addressed this problem in the case of a Mountain Home man who died while sitting in his easy chair. He stayed there, in his recliner, for three weeks.

The floors and even the insulation below the house had to be ripped out and replaced before the family could re-enter.

Lt. Edward Griffin of the Mountain Home Police Department said officers are not allowed to refer the victim's relatives or friends to a business. Mountain Home police have used private contractors to haul away the chemicals used in meth labs, but never for violent crime scene cleanup, he said.

"If your loved one passed, we would investigate it and then turn around," Griffin said. "We can't help you call or anything like that."

When people hire Aftermath, the cleaning process is methodical -- a result of thorough training, Lemon said.

Workers begin by going through a series of online modules, beginning with "Bloodborne Pathogens," a 40-minute class in which a man's voice explains the risks of infection from blood-based substances in a low, matter-of-fact tone. His cautionary words float over an animated video of red blood cells coursing through a vein.

PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT

Another training module, this one an hour and 15 minutes, guides employees on the proper use of personal protective equipment -- things such as helmets, gloves, respirators and goggles. Employees complete 24 hours of online and classroom training before they are allowed in the field, Bao said.

Employees are required to approach jobs in suits that cover their entire bodies, three pairs of gloves and respirators. If a job is particularly messy, they may need face shields, too, Bao said.

Training for Aftermath's method of cleanup, which includes different "zones" to prevent the biohazardous material from traveling away from the scene on the cleaners' clothes, is also taught in a series of PowerPoint presentations.

When the job is done, workers go from zone to zone, disinfecting each and eventually putting even the suits worn during cleanup in red biohazard bags. The protective suits have to be changed every hour to prevent any chance of blood soaking through the material.

Instruction is paired with hands-on practice. Lemon constructs faux scenes for new workers. Recently, he transformed the bathroom in their shop into a suicide scene, splashing fake blood -- bought from a costume shop -- on the tile walls.

When trainees make it to the field, they are accompanied by a supervisor at all times for the first month. After that, they spend 90 days working alongside a tenured technician. After that, they are allowed to work unaccompanied, Bao said.

Suicides are the most common cause of the deaths Aftermath handles, at 28 percent of the cleanups, she said.

"Most people think that it's just crime scenes that we go clean, but that makes up a fairly small percent of our business," she said. "Suicides and unattended deaths make up most of it."

Unattended deaths are generally older people who die in their homes. The company deals with more of these from May to September, when the heat speeds up the decomposition process and the mess becomes harder to manage more quickly, Bao said.

It is during these summer months, Lemon said, that he often spends more time with his crew than his family. He met his wife, Erin, in high school although they didn't start dating until years later, when he was on the verge of leaving the Marine Corps.

SCHEDULE CAN BE ROUGH

They've been together for eight years and got married last month. The couple have a young son. Lemon said the ups and downs of his schedule can be rough on the family, but he likes the variety of his work, the never quite knowing what's coming next.

Recently, Lemon and his crew worked an unattended death in Seattle. Workers can be called anywhere based on need, even though they usually stay in the southeast region of the country. The Seattle death was on a sailboat, a first for Lemon and other members of the team.

Lemon considers his crew an extension of his family. The group is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and often works with no set schedule for sleep. They can work a single job for days at a time, in eight- or 10-hour shifts. The longest job he has handled -- the unattended death of a hoarder -- took nine days.

"It's a positive relationship," he said. "You get really close with your team members on your crew because you spend a lot of time in a Mercedes van, cramped together."

The relationship with his team is one of the things that keeps Lemon going when spending his days dealing with death gets hard. The other thing is the reminders that despite all the gore he sees each week, he is helping people. Sometimes these reminders come in the form of notes or phone calls months after a cleanup from the family members of someone whose home he has cleaned.

"Today is my dad's birthday. He would have been 70 years old. Because of your advice and help, we were able to begin celebrating his life today, rather than focus on ... where he died," one card read.

Lemon received the note at Christmastime last year from an Arkansas client.

Photo by Courtesy of Aftermath
Jeremy Lemon says he found his calling working for Aftermath.
This screen shows a portion of the online training given Aftermath employees.

He says his crew has affected someone's life in a positive way at a very tragic time. "What really keeps me going and keeps me positive and keeps me coming back is the people that we've helped."

Style on 10/22/2017

Print Headline: The second responders: Following the death of a loved one, once police have left the scene, Aftermath steps in to clean up

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