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Daughter's desperate rescue efforts recalled at slurry tragedy inquest

A young woman who tried to save her father and two brothers from a slurry pit has said she risked her life to make the rescue attempt because she loved them so much.

Emma Rice’s heroic actions were recalled on the first day of an inquest into the tragedy which claimed the lives of three members of the same family.

Noel Spence and his two sons Graham and Nevin, a rising Ulster Rugby star, died in the accident at their farm near Hillsborough last September. On Monday the inquest heard how the tragedy was sparked when a collie dog fell into the tank.

After Noel raised the alarm, Graham (30) climbed into the pit to find the animal. However, he was overcome by fumes.

Nevin (23) went to the aid of his brother but, when he too succumbed to the toxic gases, his 58-year-old father also entered the pit. Mrs Rice attempted to rescue the three but was also overcome.

Asked by Senior Coroner John Leckey if she knew how dangerous it was to go into the pit, she replied: “Yes, but when it comes to the love of your family, it doesn’t matter.

“All I could think was that they are not going to live in there, so it was just get them out.”

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The tragedy unfolded at the farm at Drumlough Road shortly after 6pm on Saturday, September 15. Nevin’s friend Andrew Oliver, who had been working at the farm that day, explained how Graham was first to enter the tank in search of the dog but, after 15 to 20 seconds, seemed to give up the search.

Mr Oliver explained how Graham climbed up the ladder to exit the pit, before suddenly passing out.

“At the point when his head was just above ground level... he passed out and slumped back into the tank,” he recalled. Nevin went to his brother’s aid but was also overcome and passed out.

Finally, Noel went into the tank. He managed to locate Graham and tried to pull his lifeless body back up the ladder.

However, Mr Oliver recalled how Noel passed out too.

“Noel was overcome and fell down the ladder,” he said.

“I wasn’t able to hold Graham without Noel’s help.”

At this stage Emma had arrived at the scene and joined the rescue attempt, ignoring pleas from neighbours not to enter the tank. With the help of others, she pulled her father out.

She attempted mouth to mouth resuscitation before going back to the pit.

Emma found Graham and tried to drag him to safety, but was overcome. “I suddenly felt faint and sleepy,” she recalled.

“The next thing I remember, I was in the recovery position.”

She was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital, but was discharged 24 hours later. Mr Leckey described her actions as “extremely brave”.

The inquest heard from neighbours who also took part in the rescue bid.

They included Derek and Claire Sloan, who described how they had been summoned by a frantic call from Noel’s wife Esme pleading: “Come quick, come quick, they’re all in the tank.”

Firefighter Andrew Allen, who was wearing specialist breathing apparatus, eventually located Nevin and the dog. Nevin and Noel were both pronounced dead at the scene, while Graham died a short time later in hospital.

Mr Leckey said the Spences had shown an “understandable desire” to save the dog, adding it was “everyone’s instinct” to try and rescue a family pet.

However, he referred to the dangers caused by fumes and said he had presided over several inquests involving slurry tanks in recent months.

Malcolm Downey, an official with the Health and Safety Executive, said the tank was between 8ft and 10ft deep and, at the time, contained around 3ft of liquid slurry, and was accessible via eight manhole covers. He said there was little ventilation, except through the entrance door.

The hearing continued on Tuesday.

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