ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Leslie Cherry remembers receiving the suicide call on his radio. He was completing his daily routine of walking the tunnels of Washington’s Metro system, inspecting and fixing the tracks.
As he called central headquarters to gain specifics on the incident, he prayed he would not be needed to clean up blood from the track. His prayer was not answered. He and his co-worker were the first to call in and were told to respond.
When they got to the track, “we saw just the head,” Cherry said of a woman who committed suicide by laying across the track. She had been decapitated. “That [scene] stuck in my head for a while.”
Cherry, 44, of Clinton, is one of 22 track walkers for Metro, whose job description includes cleaning up the tracks after attempted and completed suicides. Although the cleanup duties are a small part of his job, they have taught Cherry the importance of living.
“It gives you a different outlook on life,” Cherry said. “Life is precious and you hope that if you meet somebody that’s suicidal, you can say something to them.”
Cherry said his experiences have moved him to communicate better with his three children, an 18-year-old son and two daughters, 16 and 8.
“It does make you more attentive” to people’s needs, Cherry said. “It’s important to sit down and talk with them. And suicide should be addressed.”
Cherry recalls cleaning up more than six suicides during 18 years as a track walker. More than half of the time, he has seen the victim’s body.
Walkers are not responsible for handling the body but must clean up the body fluids and debris left on the track once the police investigation is over and the coroner takes the body away.
Usually Cherry must clean up a pool of blood or broken glass, but he said he has seen a lot worst. He recalled cleaning up scenes in which body parts were left by the coroner. He had to clean fragmented arms, legs, fingers and pieces of “guts.”
Despite the morbid tasks, Cherry said he doesn’t have nightmares or reoccurring thoughts about what he’s seen. Still, he’d rather not see them.
“Actually, you call central, hoping that [the victim] is in somebody else’s area. I’m not going to lie. Nobody wants to go,” he said.
There is a routine to each response. Track walkers must stop by the nearest Metro station and pick up a “jumper’s kit.” Each kit contains a protective cover suit, which covers every part of the worker’s body; a bottle of bleach to clean the floor, and a red hazardous garbage bag to throw away the used suit and cleaning supplies.
“Even with the suit on, you have to be very careful” to avoid contamination from body fluids, said Keith Davis, 57, a line quality manager.
Track walkers are required to take a four-hour training session to learn about the dangers of handling body fluids.
“When I teach the class, I instill in them that you have to act as if you did not have the suit on,” said Davis, a 22-year Metro employee. For instance, cut glass could tear the suit and create health risks.
The sessions teach employees how to take on and off the protective clothing, the life expectancy of different bacteria and the risks of receiving hepatitis from contact with blood.
Cherry said he takes the health risks in stride.
“That’s just part of the job,” Cherry said. “To me, unemployment is more dangerous.” -30-