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Nevin Spence Death: Trio Trying To Save Dog
Ulster rugby star Nevin Spence died along with his brother and father after they tried to save each other from being killed in a slurry tank, heartbroken family members have said.
His sister Emma, who survived the accident, has been released from hospital where she had been treated for the effects of inhaling fumes.
They were all overcome by gas after falling into the tank at the family's farm in Hillsborough, Co Down, on Saturday night.
Sky News Ireland Correspondent David Blevins said the tragedy unfolded when the 22-year-old rugby player's father Noel, 58, fell in as he tried to rescue his pet dog.
Nevin's brother Graham, 30, who is married with two children, went to the aid of his father, but was overcome by fumes. Nevin and his sister Emma, an artist well known for her paintings of Ulster Rugby players, then tried to save both their father and brother.
All three men lost their lives. Two died at the scene and the third was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital.
The other family members, Mrs Essie Spence and her daughter, Laura, are said to be deeply shocked.
Grieving family members said in a statement: "The families of Noel, Graham and Nevin Spence are trying very hard to come to terms with their tragic loss.
"The three men were very close to each other in life, and that love was expressed in their final moments trying to help one another."
The statement, released by Rev Rodney Stout, senior pastor at Ballynahinch Baptist Church, added: "The family is being supported and comforted by other family members, friends and neighbours.
"Arrangements for a thanksgiving service for the three is currently under way and details will appear in the press in due course."
A book of condolence is being opened in Belfast for the young player.
The Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) is investigating the circumstances to establish a clear picture of how events unfolded.
It said: "From HSENI's initial investigations, it understands that the three family members who entered an underground slurry tank died from the effects of exposure to slurry gases.
"The exact sequence of events is not yet clear but HSENI is investigating a definite line of inquiry."
Three other people have died on Northern Ireland farms from slurry gas over the last 10 years.
Presbyterian Moderator Dr Roy Patton said the scale of the latest tragedy had left everyone "in a state of bewilderment and shock".
He said each of the three men who died had touched the lives of many in sport, farming and church circles.
Nevin was already a star of the Ulster Rugby squad and was predicted to have a successful international career ahead of him.
He had made an impressive 43 appearances for Ulster. He had also played for Ireland's Under 20s and received a call up for last year's six nations.
At Ulster's home stadium of Ravenhill in Belfast his former colleagues said they were deeply saddened.
The chief executive of Ulster Rugby, Shane Logan, said: "Nevin was a wonderful player but also a wonderful person. He was well liked by everyone who knew him and his loss will be deeply felt by his teammates and everyone at Ulster Rugby.
"He will be sorely missed and the thoughts of everyone involved in the game are with his family at this time."
He described Nevin as "a man of absolute integrity, complete determination, great humility, a fine team player, and an all-round exceptional individual".
Stormont politicians also paid tributes that were led by Health Minister Edwin Poots. He had known the family for 30 years and said the Spence household was in deep shock.
"It was just a very, very quiet house as a consequence of the death of the three men of the house," the Democratic Unionist said.
"The Spence family have been farming in this area for five generations. And the community have come to know and love them."
Sinn Fein Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill raised the need to prioritise farm safety to tackle the dangers faced by those working in the industry.
Speakers also recalled the death in an industrial accident of Fermanagh Gaelic footballer Brian Og Maguire, who died only days before the tragedy.
Leader of the nationalist SDLP Alasdair McDonnell recalled how his own children had met Nevin and were grief-stricken at news of his death.
Mr McDonnell said he therefore appreciated how the sports star had also touched lives off the pitch, adding: "That is how far his reach went."