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 couple also had two younger daughters.
Sonny Layman, another farmhand, said Tuesday he tried to save Phyillis Showalter by hooking her onto a grate and pulling her up.
"I tried to hook her but I couldn't," a visibly shaken Layman said. "It's in the lord's hands."
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 an odorless and colorless byproduct of liquefied manure. The pit was nearly enclosed and poorly vented, Farley said.
The Showalters milked 103 cows on their farm west of Harrisonburg in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, an area dotted with church steeples and old-fashioned red barns.
Family and friends came to the farm Tuesday to milk the cows and finish clearing the drain. 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.
"He got in and the gas got him," said Scott Showalter's cousin Bruce Good.
There are more than 6,000 Mennonites in 40 churches in Rockingham County, according to Jim Lehman, archivist for the Virginia Mennonite Conference.
The Showalters belonged to a church in a branch whose members shun many of the trappings of modern society but drive cars and have telephones, said Bonnie Lofton, spokeswoman at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, who spoke with a family member.
"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.