Manure pit tragedy: 10 years later

Published: Jul. 5, 2017 at 10:53 PM EDT
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It's a tragedy out of Rockingham County that was heard around the world.

A community was shaken after five people, including two children died ten years ago on a dairy farm in Briery Branch.

Even after a decade of healing, July 2, 2007 is a night this community won't forget.

The day started as any other on the Showalter Dairy Farm. It was another day in the life of the hard working Mennonite community, but this day would end in tragedy.

It was a simple act farmers and family members like George Rohrer do every day.

"Not only were these fellow Ag producers, fellow dairy producers, they were family," said Rohrer.

Rockingham County Sheriff at the time Don Farley said Scott Showalter was in the process of pumping manure out of his

pit to be used as fertilizer when he became unresponsive.

"And I see each one reaching out to bring them up and that's the kind of Scott Showalter and Phyllis that I remember," said family friend Douglas Michael in 2007.

One by one, family members climbed into the pit to help, including the farmhand Amous Stoltzfus and the nine and eleven year old daughters. They were all overcome by odorless


"Going from one to five is a pretty significant shock, especially when you weren't prepared for that," said Captain Joe Mullens with Rockingham County Fire and Rescue.

Mullens was the first to arrive on scene as a medic, coming face-to-face with the horrific sight 10 feet underground.

"I don't know if at that point in time if we were really thinking about the magnitude of what we were dealing with," said Chief Jeremy Holloway with Rockingham County Fire and Rescue. "We knew it was out of the ordinary."

Mullens quickly called specialized hazmat units and they responded from all over the county.

With the threat determined as methane gas, fire and rescue Chief Jeremy Holloway and former Chief Robbie Symons immediately turned their attention to the safety of the rescue crew.

"We had to control the scene and make sure that nobody else went into that area without personal protective equipment on," said Holloway.

They had to switch gears from a rescue to a recovery.

"Once we got done, and you go in there and see these kids and things. It's heart wrenching to you," Holloway added.

"When these kind of things happen it becomes very clear that today could be your last day," said Rohrer.

For days and even years after, friends and family tried to make sense of what happened.

"I think instinctively we all know those dangers as dairy farmers or as farmers. But you always think, 'No it won't be me, or my family. It won't touch my community'," said Rohrer.

How an act of selflessness could result in five lives lost.

"A lot of people have forgotten about it. I will tell you that community probably hasn't forgot about it. I know we haven't forgot about it," said Holloway. "You know, when you see things like that, you kinda tuck it away in the back of your mind, but it's still there."

The tragedy remains a not so distant memory, as clear today as it was ten years ago.

Members of the Showalter family stepped up to keep the farm going after the accident. It is still in the family.

Since then, Rockingham County Fire and Rescue has increased their farm safety efforts, supervising farmers and monitoring methane levels around manure pits.

The youngest two daughters of the Showalter family are still alive today. They were kept inside, away from the scene that night.

The mother of Scott Showalter later wrote a book about the tragedy. It's titled "Somewhere in the Skies" and shares a message of hope in spite of how her life changed ten years ago.

You can find a copy of that book