The small Franklin County town of Kahlotus – maybe more accurately described as an extended family of 220 people – is reeling from the deaths of two brothers who were community leaders.
Kurt Harder, 45, and his brother Eric, 39, died Friday when they were overcome by fumes while using a gas-powered pump to drain a leaking cistern at Eric’s home.
The brothers planned to drain the 6,500-gallon cistern, let it dry, then patch it and refill it. The enclosed cistern has a 3-foot hole at the top and a ladder that went straight down into the tank, said their older brother, Bill Harder Jr.
Kurt apparently realized what was happening and was able to climb out of the cistern and get to the house to call their father, Harder said.
“He said something was awful bad and to get there as fast as he could,” Harder said.
“Then he went back down to try to save his brother. He tried to carry him up the ladder and he fell back down. That’s how they found them.”
Volunteer firefighter/EMTs with Franklin Fire District 2 pulled the men out of the cistern and tried to revive them. One of the rescuers was also affected by the fumes. He was taken to Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco, then flown to Deaconess Medical Center in Spokane, Harder said. He has since returned home.
The emergency responders are close friends of the Harder family, which likely added to the stress of the situation and concerns about how long it took Franklin County sheriff’s deputies and the coroner to arrive.
But it appears there was confusion about when the emergency was reported to the county’s dispatch center.
Sheriff Richard Lathim explained Monday that the initial call for help was never routed through the dispatch center, but rather was made to the homes of the volunteers in Kahlotus. He said deputies didn’t know anything was going on until just after 4 p.m., more than an hour after the incident happened and after a medical helicopter had been requested.
An EMT called dispatchers around 4:25 p.m., said two people were in a well and there was a medical problem and asked for a deputy to provide traffic control at Highway 240 and Gill Road. Lathim said they didn’t know two people had died until 4:45 p.m. when helicopter personnel called. Deputies arrived around 5:11 p.m.
“It’s a terrible tragedy. You have all these emotions going on and people reacting,” Lathim said. “I don’t think it would have mattered … if they would have called us first. I don’t know that there would have been a different outcome. It’s just a tragedy.”
Harder said he wasn’t at the scene when the accident happened at 3 p.m., but many people were upset at how long it took for the bodies to be removed. Coroner Dan Blasdel arrived around 5:30 p.m., but the hearse didn’t arrive until 7 p.m., he said.
“Most of the people sitting there were people we’ve grown up with for years and are really, really good friends of ours,” Harder said. “They had to just sit there with the bodies.”
Kurt and Eric Harder were the great-grandsons of one of Kahlotus’ founders, Hans Harder, and were fourth-generation operators of the family farm and ranch. They worked with their father, William Harder Sr., and their older brother.
Kurt managed the wheat farm, while Eric and his wife, Terri, managed the Hereford cattle business.
“It’s not just going to be a great loss to the family …” Harder said as he talked about how his brothers grew up in Kahlotus, were active in the community and how Kurt was like a father to many in town.
Kurt was chairman of the Franklin County Farm Service Agency, president of the Franklin County Wheat Growers Association and a Franklin Fire District 2 commissioner. He also was a member of the Natural Resource Conservation District, Washington Cattleman’s Association, National Cattleman’s Beef Association and Washington Wheat Growers Association.
Eric was president of the Kahlotus Lions Club, chairman of the Kahlotus School Board and a Franklin Fire District 2 volunteer firefighter. He also was involved with the Washington Cattleman’s Association, National Cattleman’s Beef Association and Washington Wheat Growers Association.
Superintendent Randy Behrens said he’s been fortunate to work with high quality school boards in his 17 years as an administrator in various districts, and Eric Harder was among the top two or three school board members he had worked with.
“He demonstrated a thorough grasp of what it takes to make things work. He was not afraid to tackle challenges. He was not afraid to speak his mind … but he did so in a very civil manner,” Behrens said.
Losing a critical member and leader of the school board is a tremendous loss, Behrens said, but he added that he knows the other board members are willing and able to step up and fill the gap.
“Both Eric and Kurt were very active, very strong leaders within the community,” Behrens said. “The community of Kahlotus is going to miss both of them tremendously.”
The brothers died the day before the annual Kahlotus Days festival, which takes place the first Saturday of June.
They were on the Kahlotus Days committee and were going to be the cooks for the Lions Club breakfast on Saturday, their brother said. The Lions Club turned the breakfast into a memorial to the men, he said.
They accepted donations for the breakfast and “the money box was just stuffed with donations,” Harder said.
Eric Harder leaves behind his wife Terri of 13 years, a daughter, Nicole, 10, and two sons, Eric Max, 11, and Timothy J. “TJ,” 7.
Eric and Kurt are survived by their older brother and parents, William George Sr. and Vivian Harder.
A funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Kahlotus School gym. The brothers will be buried side by side at the Harder Family Cemetery in Kahlotus. Arrangements are by Danekas Funeral Home in Ritzville.