Spence deaths 'a farming tragedy'

Northern Ireland's senior coroner has described the deaths of three members of the Spence family as the worst farming tragedy in recent times.

Published 29/01/2013 12:00

Northern Ireland's senior coroner has described the deaths of three members of the Spence family as the worst farming tragedy in recent times.

Speaking on the final day of the inquest into the triple tragedy on the family's Co Down farm, Coroner John Leckey called for greater awareness of the highly toxic fumes that slurry emits.

Ulster Rugby star Nevin Spence, 22, his 30-year-old brother Graham, and their father Noel, 58, died after they tried to rescue a dog from a slurry pit at the Hillsborough property in September.

Emma Rice dragged her father out of the pit with the help of her neighbours and tried to resuscitate him before going back in to try and rescue her brothers.

She was also overcome by poisonous gases and taken to Royal Victoria Hospital for treatment for the inhalation of fumes.

Mr Leckey found that Mr Spence and his two sons died of drowning and breathing in slurry.

He said he understood the catalyst for the tragedy was the desire to rescue the family's dog, but he stressed that farmers must be more aware of the danger of slurry.

Slurry emits the toxic gas hydrogen sulphide, which the coroner said, is like the extremely poisonous hydrogen cyanide.

"It's difficult to think of anything more dangerous - it's a killer," he said.

I have total admiration for everyone who joined together to try to rescue the three men - I have nothing but praise for the selflessness of their actions.

Coroner John Leckey

There is one fatality a month in Northern Ireland's farming community, which Mr Leckey described as a frightening statistic which would be regarded as unacceptable in any other industry.

He has also called for increased safety on farms to help prevent future tragedies.

On Monday, Emma Rice was questioned about the dangers of being close to the slurry pit, but she said: "When it comes to the love of your family, it doesn't matter."

Mr Leckey said her actions were "extremely brave".

Malcolm Downey from the Health and Safety Executive NI's Farm Safety Team said: "Farming is an extremely dangerous professional and the risks are very real.

"In Northern Ireland, we have experienced an unprecedented number of farm-related deaths in recent years, and, against this, HSENI and its Farm Safety Partners continue to work hard to ensure that everyone in the farming community will always put safety first."

Harry Sinclair from the Ulster Farmers' Union told UTV that, while there was an awareness of the risks involved in farming, there had previously been an 'it-will-never-happen-to-me' attitude.

"But there wasn't a farming family in Northern Ireland that the Spence tragedy didn't affect - and indeed, a lot wider than that, across the whole British Isles and among our counterparts south of the border as well," he said.

"There is that feeling out on the ground that there will be a change in attitude. And it's up to us to drive it and to encourage people to make changes."

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