By DIONNE WALKER
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.
Showalter shimmied through the 4-foot opening into the concrete enclosure, which is similar to an underground tank.
"It was probably something he had done a hundred times," Farley said.
The deaths struck hard in this picturesque farming region dotted with red barns, gleaming silos and church steeples that peek above rolling fields.
The Showalters were well known in the community where neighbors do each other's laundry. Their two surviving daughters were being cared for by family members, and friends tended to the family's animals the day after the tragedy.
"The cows have to be milked twice a day, even in an ordeal like this," said Frank Showalter, Scott's great-uncle, standing a few feet from where his relatives died.
The Showalters milked 103 cows on their farm west of Harrisonburg in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. They belonged to a conservative Mennonite church whose members shun many of the trappings of modern society but drive cars, use telephones and, according to police, take modern farm-safety precautions.
Fellow church members were in shock Tuesday, said the Rev. Nathan Horst, a Mennonite bishop.
"We've never had a tragedy of this magnitude," he said.
Associated Press writer Sue Lindsey in Roanoke contributed to this report.