The deaths of a father and his two sons – one of them a professional rugby star - in a slurry tank accident in Northern Ireland must serve as a warning to the whole farming community, a coroner has urged.
Ulster Rugby player Nevin Spence, 22, his elder brother Graham, 30, and their father Noel, 58, were knocked out by poisonous fumes before drowning in less than four feet of slurry.
Northern Ireland’s senior coroner John Leckey today described the incident as the worst farming tragedy in the region in recent times.
The inquest heard that the last occasion three people died in a farm-based accident in Northern Ireland was 20 years ago.
The tragedy unfolded last September as the men tried to save a family dog from the half-full tank at their farm near Hillsborough, Co Down.
On the second and final day of their inquest in Belfast, Mr Leckey was told by experts that one of the colourless gases emitted by slurry – hydrogen sulphide - had the same devastating effect on the body as the better-known hydrogen cyanide.
“There isn’t anyone in the country who isn’t aware what a dangerous substance cyanide is and we are talking about the same thing,” said Mr Leckey
Giving evidence, state pathologist Professor Jack Crane said the gas had not killed the men, but rendered them unconscious.
He said they then drowned when they collapsed into the slurry.
“I don’t think the initial concentration of hydrogen sulphide was high enough to cause their death because they were still breathing when they entered the slurry,” explained the pathologist.
Mr Leckey said he felt the tragedy had reinforced the need for farmers to take precautions when working with slurry.
But he said he hoped the inquest would again help to spread the message to the farming community about the dangers.
He told Essie Spence, Noel’s widow and the mother of Graham and Nevin: “I’m keen for the message to get out into the farming community and the inquest into the death of your husband and sons is one way of getting the message across.”