The Cleaner

the-cleaner-spread-oct-17-b-metroIn the aftermath of a violent crime, Don Myre answers the call with a hazmat suit and healthy dose of compassion.

Written by Rosalind Fournier *Photography by Edward Badham

Some days, Don Myre walks into his office at a financial-planning firm in the city’s quiet, leafy Highland Park neighborhood after a couple of really tough days, suited up in corporate

attire but feeling like he’s just walked out of a crime scene. He probably has. 

“The guys will ask, ‘Where have you been?’” Myre says. “I just tell them I’ve been trying to clean up a mess.”

While it’s not exactly a secret, Myre does lead a double life when it comes to his career, though he didn’t plan it that way. Here’s the short version of how a financial professional comes to find himself, when duty calls, donning a hazmat suit and walking into some of the most disturbing and grisly scenes the mind can fathom.

_ebv1878Myre has spent nearly 30 years working in insurance and financial planning, and during that time he has gained many clients around the country who happen to own franchises of Bio-One Crime Scene Cleaning. Under the Bio-One name, these are locally owned and operated companies that specialize in difficult clean-up situations—“a niche market not many folks know about,” as Myre dryly describes it. When there’s a homicide or suicide, for instance, and police have completed their investigation, these are the men and women who come in to clean up what remains, essentially removing all traces of the tragedy. Most are also trained in cleaning up extreme hoarding situations, where people with hoarding disorders have allowed entire homes to become filled floor to ceiling with piles of stuff, from newspapers to unopened packages to actual garbage, some of it accumulated over years, making the spaces almost uninhabitable. (By the time someone calls for help, it’s not unusual for rodents to have moved in, comfortable and well hidden in all the clutter and trash).

This type of work is not for the faint of heart—and it wasn’t for Myre, which is why, until a few years ago, his only contact with the world of biohazard cleanup was as a financial advisor to the people who do it for a living. When his Bio-One franchise clients held annual conferences and invited Myre to speak on financial topics, he used to tell them, “‘I think what you guys do is an unbelievable job. I know I could never do this, because I would literally pass out from the sight of blood.”

Bu then an idea occurred to him. A Seattle native who has lived in Birmingham for 10 years, Myre realized there was no Bio-One franchise in his adopted hometown. Maybe there was a way to take advantage of that opportunity after all, if he did it the right way. He might not be able to stomach the cleanups himself, but he is an expert in the insurance field—which happens to be an important part of the crime-scene cleanup business. (Little-known fact: most homeowner insurance policies pay for cleaning services when casualties occur on private property.)

“I started looking and said, well, what would happen if I created an executive model where I would be the owner and do the insurance bidding, and we would have someone else to run the day to day operation of the business?” Myre says. His two partners agreed. They bought a franchise—Bio-One Alabama—and hired their first employee, who headed for training with Myre. Myre still had no plans to go out into the field himself, but he figured he needed at least to become certified just in case.

“Then the day before the training started,” Myre remembers, “the guy we had hired said, ‘I forgot to tell my wife I was going to do this. I’m not going to be able to do it after all.’”

_ebv1947Unexpectedly into the trenches

But by then, Bio-One Alabama was already open for business with calls starting to trickle in—so Myre found himself in the unlikely position of being the new business’ only certified technician. That meant for the time being his presence would be required at every job they took.

And that’s how the last man on earth who expected to be cleaning up after a suicide ended up doing exactly that. “One of our very first jobs,” Myre says, “a gentleman had decided to kill himself with a shotgun in his wife’s closet, four days before Thanksgiving.

“I wasn’t expecting that, but I said, ‘Okay, well, guess what? I’m going,’” he continues. “Once I got there, I really thought I was going to throw up in my mask before I even opened the door. And I just told myself, ‘No, I’m 58 years old. I’m going to do this. I’m going to go in, and at least let’s see.” The wife had left the house, but all Myre could think about was their son, probably in shock, sitting nearby in the living room watching a football game. “We got there at noon and spent until eight at night cleaning up as you can probably imagine a lot of bad things. We were hauling stuff out, and this other gentleman and I kept our heads down and kept going and just did it, thinking about what this family must have been going through that day.”

When they were done with the grueling work, Myre still couldn’t stop thinking about it. Later, when he went back to collect the insurance deductible, he decided to give the man’s wife half the money back. “I said, ‘I’m giving this to you with only one rule, and that is you can’t spend it on anything except yourself or your family dinner or trying to do something fun,’” he says. “She started tearing up and said how nice it was. And it made me feel better. It made me realize right there that when you’re doing the work, you don’t think about the cleanup. You think of what they’re going through in the other room or wherever they are, because they’re going through a lot worse than you have to.”

That experience taught Myre a lot of important lessons, many of them the philosophical kind about stepping up to help one’s fellow man under the worst of circumstances, and putting people ahead of business. But on a more practical note, it was also a rude awakening to the world of opening a small business of any kind: if you’re the owner, you’re always on call. In the few short years of Bio-One Alabama’s existence, the executive-model plan Myre originally conceived has been been undermined time and again by high turnover among the trained staff, so Myre keeps showing up. It’s as if the man who planned so carefully never actually to confront these situations himself has found he has an unwanted calling for it, and he just can’t walk away, in spite of the gore, the smells, and worse. “When you’re cleaning up and all of the sudden there’s something you don’t want to know, and there it is…,” he begins, then trails off, before beginning again. “It’s just, keep cleaning, keep cleaning, keep cleaning.”

But even more than the things he has seen, it’s the tragedy behind every call that Myre says he’ll never get past. Though he puts on a brave face in front of the clients, not wanting to add to the shock and grief he knows they’re already experiencing, he still can’t comprehend the violence that led to the scenes before him.   

“I’ve been dealing with this company for four years,” Myre says, “and I still have such a hard time with people injuring or killing others, or themselves.” He remembers a case where a man broke into the home of his estranged wife and little boy, stabbing his wife and then turning the knife on himself—all with the child in the home. Remarkably, all of them survived, but Myre was haunted by the scene that must have played out the day it happened. “It took us nine-and-a-half hours to clean it up,” he remembers. “During the whole time, I kept thinking, ‘How could someone do that in front of their child, or to their estranged wife?’ You just can’t wrap your mind around that.” His newest employee was with him that day, and he worried about her, too. “I felt bad, because it was her first job, but she did it. For nine hours she kept scrubbing and cleaning and spraying, and she never complained.”

He says that might be the job that still bothers him the most, knowing what the woman and her child had been through. Wanting to do something, he thought of the mother’s shoes stacked neatly in the bedroom, now nearly ruined inside a scene straight out of a horror-movie set.

“I’m fortunate in where I live that there’s a guy who cleans golf shoes when we need them cleaned,” Myre says. “I took the woman’s shoes to this guy, gave him some money to clean them up and put them in individual bags to return to her.” He also went out and bought a giant stuffed animal for her son, and gave it all to the people at the housing authority where she lived to give to her, asking them to present it as a gesture from them, not him. “Those are the things I hope maybe made a small difference in their head. For me, those things give me some closure, too.”

A different kind of trauma

Myre says the hoarding clean-up jobs can be just as trying—and certainly physically demanding—as cleaning up after a violent crime, but in a different way. Similarly, they also require a high level of sensitivity. “It’s not the same exactly, but it is still traumatic in its own way for someone to make a phone call to us and admit they have a real problem,” he says. “You can hear it in their voice. They’re sheepish almost. They say, ‘I’ve watched that show (A&E’s Hoarders), and I know that I am like that,’ or ‘I have relative who is.’ And you have to—or I think you have to—tell them, ‘Trust me, it’s just a little cleanup. It’s not like the world’s coming to an end, and you did the right thing by making the call. This is not nearly as bad as you told me it was’—even if it’s piled up five feet deep. You let them know that it’s okay, and once you do that, all of the sudden they’re feeling better about it.”

Yet you can almost hear the fatigue when Myre describes the physical work of a hoarding job. “I’m not going to get into gory details,” he says, “but people collect everything. They think that bucket of something is worth every bit as much as a bucket of diamonds. They just can’t get rid of it. So that’s a whole other issue.”

The scenarios vary. Sometimes the family has intervened and forced the issue. Other times, people don’t know a loved one has a hoarding problem until he or she passes away, because maybe they haven’t been in the house in years. “The person has died, the family goes in the house and thinks, ‘Oh my word, what do we do?’” Myre explains. Just like a crime scene, these cleanups require a full hazmat suit and double pair of gloves, because one never knows what could be hiding in all those piles—it could be stacks of junk mail dating back decades; it could be a family of raccoons coexisting with valuable jewelry. There’s rarely rhyme or reason. But Myre tries to approach every job with compassion. If he can’t exactly understand, he still knows the people involved are in pain.

“There was one woman who called and explained her situation, sent some pictures and said she could only afford $300.” (Unlike crime scenes, home insurance does not cover hoarding cleanup). He had to tell her that his costs for a job like hers would be substantially higher after he paid for the crew, dumpsters and other expenses involved. “So I told her, ‘Here’s what you need to do. You start in this room…’ And she said, ‘Wait. I don’t want to throw anything away.’

“I said, ‘Well, if you just sort, though, you’re still going to have the same amount of stuff. So you have to make a decision on that.’ And she was such a sweet woman. She said, ‘I’m trying as hard as I can.’”

He offered some words of support and had to leave it at that. But about a week later, she called him back. “She said, ‘I talked to two of my friend’s sons, and we’ve actually started. Thank you!’” he remembers. “She was so excited. And so in that case, it was just kind of reaffirming to be able to say, ‘Maybe you don’t need us. Maybe you just needed a little encouragement.’”

Myre still holds out hope that he’ll have better success in the future with employee retention, freeing him up to stay in the office and out of the field for a while and giving him a much-needed respite. But after four years, he’s more realistic about his odds of ever reaching a point where he can stay out of the trenches completely, which makes it curious in a way that he continues to hold onto the franchise at all. After all, he has another career he’s already spent 30 years building. And though he’s gotten better at compartmentalizing, Myre still approaches every crime scene dreading the discovery of what he’ll find on the other side of that door. “It’s like jumping into ice-cold water,” he describes. “You know it’s coming, you have to do it, and here it goes.”

Asked if he finds it unusual that a guy who’s spent most of his life going to work in a coat and tie now regularly spends time doing the dirtiest of dirty jobs, he struggles to explain it.

“I am in the service industry with what I do as a professional,” Myre says finally. “But I never think about it as blue collar/white collar; it’s just trying to help where help is needed, trying to find your purpose in life. It’s not always pleasant, but it’s always about helping someone.” 

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