5 die in Va. farming accident when methane gas from manure pit triggers tragic rescue effort

Published: Jul. 3, 2007 at 2:50 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 10, 2007 at 4:01 AM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) -- Deadly methane gas emanating from a dairy farm's manure pit killed five people, including four members of a Mennonite family, authorities said.

Emergency workers speculate that after the first victim was overcome Monday, the others climbed into the pit in a frantic rescue attempt. "It was a domino effect with one person going in, the second person going after them," Rockingham County Sheriff Don Farley said.

Farley identified the victims as Scott Showalter, 34; his wife, Phyillis, 33; their daughters, Shayla, 11, and Christina, 9; and Amous Stoltzfus, 24, who worked at the Showalters' dairy farm in the Briery Branch community.

The accident began when Scott Showalter tried to transfer manure from one small pit to a larger one, measuring 20 feet by 20 feet and 8 feet deep.

The pipe that was transferring the manure became clogged, and Showalter climbed in the pit to fix the blockage, Farley said.

"It was probably something he had done a hundred times," Farley said. "There was gas in there and he immediately succumbed."

Emergency workers believe Stoltzfus climbed into the pit in an attempt to rescue Showalter. Phyillis Showalter and the two girls were outside the milking barn, heard the commotion, then all went into the pit and succumbed to the deadly gas.

Methane gas is a odorless and colorless byproduct of liquefied manure. The pit was nearly enclosed and poorly vented, Farley said.

Farley said the deaths were called in by another person on the farm, who he declined to identify.

"By the grace of God that person did not go into that pit," he said.

The Showalters, who also had two younger daughters, milked 103 cows on their farm west of Harrisonburg in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. The area has a large concentration of Mennonites, who shun most of the trappings of modern life.

"It's a very tight community," Farley told The Associated Press. "They will be ministering to each other and counseling each other. It's very fortunate that they have a very strong faith to help them through this."

Farley said the Showalter farm was a modern dairy operation. "Their faith did not deter any safety precautions," he said.