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Farmer, 4 rescuers overcome by methane

July 04, 2007|From the Associated Press

BRIDGEWATER, VA. — Methane gas emanating from a dairy farm manure pit killed five people -- a Mennonite farmer who climbed into the pit to unclog a pipe, and then, in frantic rescue attempts that failed, his wife, two daughters and a farmhand, officials said Tuesday.

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

Farmers typically take pains to ventilate manure pits where methane often gathers. A relative of the farmer who died questioned whether cattle feed could have trickled into the pit and accelerated the formation of the gas.

"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.

Scott Showalter, 34, apparently was transferring manure from one small pit to a larger holding pond Monday evening, the sheriff said. About once a week, waste is pumped from the 9-foot-deep pit into a larger pond.

When something clogged the drain, Showalter shimmied through the 4-foot opening into the enclosure, which is similar to an underground tank. He climbed down a ladder into about 18 inches of manure.

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

Thinking Showalter had suffered a heart attack, police said, a farmhand followed him moments later and also passed out.

Another farm worker then alerted Showalter's wife, Phyillis, 33.

"The family took off to try to get him," said Sonny Layman, who rents a house on the farm. "Phyillis threw the phone out at me and asked me to dial 911." Layman instead followed her and two of her children. By the time he got to the pit, he said, "they were all gone, except Phyillis."

Layman said he tried to pull the woman out of the pit but could not. She died, along with daughters Shayla, 11, and Christina, 9, and farmhand Amous Stoltzfus, 24.

The Showalters' two surviving daughters were being cared for by relatives.

On Tuesday, Scott Showalter's cousin questioned whether runoff from a pile of brewer's grain had accelerated the formation of the gas. Showalter had been using the grain to feed his cattle.

"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 Showalter clan is well known in the community. On Tuesday, friends tended to the family's animals.

"The cows have to be milked twice a day, even in an ordeal like this," said Frank Showalter, Scott Showalter's great uncle.

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