THE WOMAN who tried to rescue her two brothers and father from a slurry pit in Hillsborough was praised by a senior coroner on her attempts to save them.
Described as one of the worst farming tragedies in Northern Ireland for 20 years, an inquest into the deaths was held this week.
Coroner John Leckey said the actions of Emma Rice had been ‘extremely brave’, ignoring the risks of deadly toxic fumes because she was driven by love for her family.
He also thanked neighbours and friends who made valiant attempts to rescue the men.
Three members of the Spence family, Nevin, 22, an up and coming Ulster Rugby star, his brother Graham, 30, and their father Noel, 58, died in the tragic accident at the family farm in Hillsborough on September 15 last year.
At the inquest which concluded on Tuesday, it was revealed that Graham climbed into the slurry pit which was under a shed housing cattle, after being alerted by his father Noel that their collie dog had fallen in.
It had contained around three and a half feet of slurry at the time.
Graham climbed down into the tank and had a quick look. A family friend, who was working on the farm, told the inquest that Graham began to climb the ladder when he passed out and fell into the tank.
After seeing his brother fall, Nevin followed him into the tank while the family friend went to get help.
Their father Noel then went into the tank and managed to get his son Graham up the ladder before he too was overcome by fumes and they both fell back into the pit.
Mr Leckey heard neighbours describe how they tried in vain to rescue them.
Emma Rice said, “I found Graham, I pulled him up by the waist of his jeans. But suddenly I felt faint and sleepy.”
She was removed from the slurry pit opening but despite the danger, she went in, dragged her father up the ladder with the help of her neighbours and tried to resuscitate him before going back in to try and rescue her brothers.
She was taken to Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital for treatment for the inhalation of fumes as she too was overcome by the poisonous gas coming from the pit and had to be rescued by neighbours.
Nevin was eventually recovered from the pit by fire and rescue service crew wearing breathing apparatus. Noel and Nevin died at the scene, while Graham died a short time later at Lagan Valley Hospital.
When questioned over the dangers of being around the slurry pit, Emma told the coroner: “When it comes to the love of your family, it doesn’t matter.”
The court was told the slurry emitted a number of harmful gases including hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, methane and ammonia.
Mr Leckey said he was concerned at the number of recent deaths in slurry accidents and said it was a “serious problem”.
He also hoped that the tragic case raised awareness about the dangers of slurry “throughout the British Isles”.
“Until this happened not everyone was aware of the dangers,” he said. “What I have been told is the message is getting across to the wider Northern Ireland farming community ”
State pathologist Prof Jack Crane said the levels of hydrogen sulphide and other toxic gases were high enough to render the men unconscious.
Prof Crane said when they fell into the slurry tanks, they died after breathing in the liquid.
Noel’s widow, Mrs Essie Spence, attended the inquest, accompanied by her two daughters and Graham’s widow, Andrea Spence.
After Prof Crane had given his evidence, she asked the pathologist why her son Nevin appeared to have “succumbed to the gas more quickly”.
He replied there may be no reason other than he might “have been more energetic in the tank and would have therefore breathed in the gases more quickly.”
The inquest also heard evidence from members of the Health and Safety Executive of Northern Ireland (HSENI).
They explained the dangers of working with slurry and said that every slurry tank was dangerous.
Mr Leckey concluded: “Everyone was riveted to the radio and newspapers as they couldn’t believe such an awful tragedy could happen in the 21st Century.
“Until this happened not everyone was aware of the dangers. What I have been told is the message is getting across to the wider Northern Ireland farming community and their tragic deaths (are) known throughout the British Isles,” the coroner said.
Mr Leckey requested that the media referred farmers to the HSENI website for slurry safety advice; in particular the ‘safe system of work for mixing slurry’ which has been distributed in Northern Ireland in 10,000 leaflets.
He added: “This has been a loss to the farming community but (also) to anyone that loved rugby, and Nevin’s loss was felt right across the rugby world.”
Mr Leckey told the Spence family that the conclusion of an inquest could often bring closure for relatives, but because the enormity of the tragedy he said he did not think it was the case here.
He added: “I genuinely hope you will be able to get on with your lives.”