Exact Cause of Va. Farm Deaths Unknown

The Associated Press
Wednesday, July 4, 2007; 11:06 AM

BRIDGEWATER, Va. -- Exposure to methane gas led to the deaths of four family members and a farmhand, but whether they suffocated from the fumes or drowned in 18 inches of liquefied cow manure may never be known, authorities said.

No autopsies were planned, in part because investigators believed the deaths on a Rockingham County dairy farm were accidental, said Capt. J.B. Wittig of the county sheriff's department. Authorities said they could not rule out the possibility that the five drowned or died of another cause.

"It was very, very quick," Wittig said of the deaths.

The victims were identified as Scott Showalter, 34; his wife, Phyillis, 33; their daughters Shayla, 11, and Christina, 9; and Amous Stoltzfus, 24.

Authorities said Showalter entered a manure pit to unclog a pipe Monday evening and was quickly overcome by the methane. Stoltzfus, apparently believing Showalter had a heart attack, went in after him and also passed out.

Another farm worker alerted Showalter's wife, who rushed to the pit followed by Shayla and Christina.

"They all climbed into the pit to help," Sheriff Donald Farley said.

The victims had no warning of the deadly gas that had built up in the pit.

"You cannot smell it, you cannot see it, but it's an instant kill," said Dan Brubaker, a family friend who oversaw the construction of the pit decades earlier.

Farmers typically take pains to ventilate manure pits where methane often gathers. On Tuesday, a cousin of Scott Showalter questioned whether runoff from a pile of cattle feed could have trickled into the pit and accelerated the formation of the gas.

"It rained, and some of it ran down into this holding pit, it fermented and made a toxic gas," said Bruce Good, who saw Showalter about once a week.

The sheriff said Showalter apparently was transferring manure from one small pit to a larger holding pond when a pipe clogged. About once a week, waste is pumped from the roughly 9-foot-deep pit into a larger pond.

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