THE deaths of a father and his two sons in a slurry tank accident 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.
Senior coroner John Leckey described the incident as the worst farming tragedy in the Province 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.
On the second and final day of their inquest in Belfast last Tuesday, 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,” he said..
Mr Leckey said he felt the tragedy had reinforced the need for farmers to take precautions when working with slurry but 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.”
The fatal chain of events was triggered when a pet collie dog fell into the tank, which was housed below a calf rearing shed.
Accompanied by a friend, the three men went to the scene to try to effect a rescue.Graham went down a ladder into the tank and, unable to find any trace of the animal, started climbing back out again. Just as he emerged above ground level he passed out and fell back into the slurry.
Nevin then went down to try to save his brother but also succumbed to the fumes.
Their father followed He managed to find Graham but as he was carrying him up the ladder he too was overcome and fell into the pit, with his unconscious son also dropping back into the liquid.
Emma Rice, Noel’s daughter and the sister of Nevin and Graham, fought off the attempts of neighbours to restrain her and twice went down into the tank. On the second occasion she also collapsed into the slurry. The young artist was rescued by a neighbour. Delivering his findings, Mr Leckey praised the “heroic efforts” of Mrs Rice and all those neighbours, friends and emergency service personnel who had rushed to the scene.
Mrs Spence was accompanied by her daughters Emma and Laura and Graham’s widow Andrea for the hearing. At one point Mrs Spence Snr asked Prof Crane a question about Nevin’s death. “He seemed to succumb to the gas more quickly than the other two?” she said.
The pathologist explained that may have been because he was being more energetic in the tank and had therefore inhaled more gas.
Jim King, a chemical expert with the Northern Ireland Health and Safety Executive, said slurry was a very unpredictable substance and it was difficult to know what volume of gases would be released by any mixture., but he added: “All tanks containing slurry should be considered dangerous.”
He reiterated HSE advice that no-one should enter a tank unless they had specialist breathing equipment and were trained how to use it. Stressing the need for ventilation in any shed with a slurry tank, the inspector highlighted that there were no building regulations that required this.
Mr Leckey said, “It does seem surprising to me there’s no building regulations.”
The coroner noted that the shed at the Spence farm had “limited ventilation”.
Mr King said the HSE had developed an 11-point system to advise farmers of the safest way of working with slurry and urged members of the agricultural community to examine it.
Mr King’s colleague in the HSE, Malcolm Downey, said the dangers had hit home with farmers.
Mr Leckey said working with slurry was “potentially highly dangerous” and highlighted the HSE advice that no-one should enter a tank without equipment or training.
He added: “However, I recognise that the catalyst for the tragedy that unfolded was an understandable desire to try and rescue the family’s collie dog.”
The coroner said he was concerned at the number of farm-related deaths coming before him of late.
“I am told fatalities in a farming environment are running at one a month (in Northern Ireland) which is a frightening statistic and in any other industry certainly would not be considered acceptable,” he said.
Turning to Nevin, Mr Leckey said the rugby world had suffered a great loss.“This was not just a loss to the farming community but to anyone who loved rugby,” he said.
He told the family members: “I hope you feel very proud of what he achieved as a professional rugby player.”
Mr Leckey, who found the cause of death for each man as drowning and aspiration of slurry, said an inquest could often bring closure for a family but he acknowledged that given the enormity of the tragedy that may not be the case for the Spences.
“It is my genuine hope that through time you may be able to get on with your lives,” he told them as he brought the inquest to a close.