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.
Amous Stoltzfus, 24, apparently entered the pit thinking Mr. Showalter had had a heart attack, police said. But he, too, passed out, and another farmworker alerted Phyillis Showalter, 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." 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."
Mr. Layman said he couldn't manage to pull her out of the pit from alongside the bodies of Mr. Stoltzfus, her husband and daughters Shayla, 11, and Christina, 9.
"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.
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.