By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
Four members of a Shenandoah Valley dairy farming family and a hired hand died Monday evening after breathing methane gas fumes inside a manure pit, Rockingham County authorities said yesterday.
The deaths occurred in rapid succession, as the hired hand tried to save the farmer, who was overcome with fumes while working inside the pit, which was enclosed and poorly ventilated, authorities said. The farmer's wife and two daughters then jumped into the 10-foot hole, where they also died from exposure to the odorless gas, a byproduct of liquefied manure.
The incident in Briery Branch, about a dozen miles southwest of Harrisonburg, left two young members of the Mennonite farm family orphaned, Capt. J.B. Wittig of the Rockingham sheriff's department said.
"It was just a horrific event," said Wittig, who visited the scene Monday night and again yesterday afternoon. "You have to remember that this is a very tightknit community, and the family members are in shock."
Federal safety officials have been warning farmers about the dangers of entering manure pits for almost two decades.
Yesterday, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, which administers federal worker-safety standards in the state, opened an investigation to determine whether any federal work-related regulations were violated.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health warned in a 1990 bulletin that "many farm workers appear to be unaware of the immediate danger posed by entry into manure pits. Like other types of confined spaces, manure pits present special problems regarding worker awareness of hazards."
Yesterday, the occupational safety institute advised farm workers to "never enter a manure pit unless absolutely necessary, and only when proper safeguards have been taken."
Monday's incident unfolded shortly after 6 p.m. when farm owner Scott Showalter, 34, was transferring liquefied manure from the small enclosed pit near his barn to a larger, open pit nearby, authorities said.
Showalter apparently had trouble with a pipe that connected the two pits, so he climbed into the smaller hole to fix the problem as his hired hand watched, authorities said.
"This is a situation where the farmer had done this numerous times, as had the hired hand," Wittig said. "One or both had been down in the pit and had done this hundreds of times."
This time, however, Showalter was overcome by poisonous gas.
"For whatever reason, because of the weather conditions, the humidity and everything -- and the fact that the pits had been sealed up for a period of time -- a lot of gas had formed, both methane and probably hydrogen sulfide, that are associated with manures," Wittig said.
The hired hand, Amous Stoltzfus, 24, ran to the farmhouse to inform Showalter's wife, according to Wittig.
Phyllis Showalter, 33, rushed to the pit with two of her children -- Shayla, 11, and Christina, 9.
"In very quick order, once everybody arrived [at the pit], our indications are that the hired hand jumped in to assist Mr. Showalter and was quickly overcome," Wittig said. "Then it was a succession of the wife jumping in to try to assist both of them and two of the children jumping in. In quick succession, all were overcome and quickly debilitated by the gas."
By the time rescue crews arrived, the four family members and the hired hand were dead.
A 1993 advisory from the occupational safety institute, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the hazards of manure pits, "as well as the proper prevention measures, have been recognized by researchers for several years." The advisory cited cases of farmers who had died from exposure to poisonous gases in manure pits.