Continued from page 1

Whether the victims suffocated from the fumes, drowned or died of another cause might never be known. No autopsies were planned, in part because investigators were satisfied that the deaths were accidental, the sheriff’s office said.

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

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

“It was probably something he had done a hundred times,” Sheriff Farley said.

The Showalters’ two surviving daughters, ages 6 and 2, are being cared for by relatives.

The deaths struck hard in this picturesque farming region dotted with red barns, gleaming silos and church steeples that peek above rolling fields.

The Showalter clan is well-known in the community where neighbors do each other’s laundry.

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.

“It’s a very tight community,” Sheriff Farley said. “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.”

Mr. Stoltzfus had moved to Rockingham County from the Lancaster, Pa., area less than a year ago and was taking a class to join the church

Doug Michael was a neighbor of Mr. Showalter’s parents and watched him grow up.

“I know each one was reaching out to the other one, trying to help,” he said.

n AP writer Sue Lindsey in Roanoke contributed to this report.