BRIDGEWATER, Va. — When Scott Showalter keeled over on his dairy farm, it was natural that his wife and two daughters rushed to his aid, even though that meant climbing into a claustrophobic pit shin-high with manure.
The family members — described by friends as a close-knit and God-fearing Mennonite clan — and a farmhand died Monday evening in that pit, victims of methane gas, Rockingham County police said.
“They all climbed into the pit to help,” Sheriff Donald Farley said.
“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.” Mr. Layman instead followed her and two of the Showalters’ four children.
By the time he got to the pit a few feet away, “They were all gone, except Phyillis.”
“I tried to hook her, but I couldn’t,” said Mr. Layman, who was visibly shaken. “It’s in the Lord’s hands.”
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 accumulates. Yesterday, a cousin of Mr. Showalter’s 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, a cousin who saw Mr. Showalter about once a week.
“He got in, and the gas got him,” Mr. Good said.
He was among the family and friends yesterday who came to the medium-sized farm on a hill to finish clearing the drain and milking the cows.
In the distance stood an off-white, two-story house with black shutters, a small garden and a clothesline with laundry blowing in the wind.