Tributes paid after Spence tragedy

The death of Nevin Spence, his brother and father in a farming tragedy has caused deep shock and disbelief in Northern Ireland.

Investigators are still examining the circumstances of the accident in Co Down, which is believed to have unfolded as the loved ones came to each other's aid after falling into a slurry tank at their farm in Hillsborough.

Ulster star Spence, 22, was killed along with his 30-year-old brother Graham, who is married with two children, and their 52-year-old father Noel.

The sportsman's sister Emma, a well known artist, was taken to Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital for treatment for the inhalation of fumes. Her condition is described as stable.

There is widespread shock at the devastating blow to the remaining family members, Nevin's mother Esme and sister Laura.

Emergency services went to the family farm in Drumlough Road outside the Co Down village shortly after 6pm yesterday, following reports four people had fallen into the slurry pit.

Investigations into the cause of the tragedy are ongoing, amid unconfirmed reports that the family died trying to save one another, or that the tragedy may have been sparked by efforts to save a dog from the slurry tank.

The Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) is to investigate the circumstances and establish a clear picture of how the tragedy 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 enquiry."

Presbyterian Moderator Dr Roy Patton said: "We are all left in a state of bewilderment and shock in the wake of this tragic accident.

"I know prayers were said in many churches this morning and I would assure the Spence family of our continuing support in both public and private devotions as we pray for them at this awful time - and for Emma's speedy recovery."

Nevin was a member of the Ulster squad that reached last season's Heineken Cup final.

He was tipped to have a glittering international career ahead of him and at the club's home stadium of Ravenhill in Belfast his former colleagues were visibly shaken by news of the tragedy.

Chief executive Shane Logan said: "I am deeply saddened by this tragic news.

"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 team-mates 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 said Nevin was "a man of absolute integrity, complete determination, great humility, a fine team player, and an all round exceptional individual".

One of Ulster's most famous former players David Humphreys, now the club's director of professional rugby, said he was overwhelmed by the loss of a man he had watched rise through the ranks.

"There was huge potential," he said, citing highlights of a career already packed with achievement.

He also recalled Nevin as a player who was hugely popular off the pitch, adding: "You just need to listen to some of the conversations with our players over the last 24 hours.

"All of us are struggling to come to terms with what has happened."

Former Wallace High School player Nevin was last year named Young Player of the Year at the Irish Rugby Union Players' Association Awards.

Sports stars, fans of the young player and friends of the family have paid tribute to him and his bereaved relatives, with floral tributes today left outside Ravenhill.

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said they were deeply saddened by the tragic accident.

The Ministers said: "This tragedy has shocked the entire community and is a terrible reminder to us all of the dangers of farming life. Our thoughts are also with farmers everywhere at this time.

"Nevin was a rising star of local rugby and it is only a matter of months ago, in happier times, that we had the honour of hosting him and his colleagues at a reception in Parliament Buildings to celebrate the achievement of Ulster in reaching the Heineken Cup final.

"His untimely death is a blow for the game in the province and we sympathise with his team-mates and everyone at Ulster Rugby who have lost a true colleague and friend."