Emma Rice: Bravery of daughter who ignored warnings as she battled to save her father and two brothers

January 28th, 20139:11 pm @


  • Emma Rice fought off attempts by neighbours to stop her entering the tank
  • Rice said she knew how dangerous it was to go into the pit
  • Father Noel and brothers Nevin Spence and Graham died in tragic accident
  • Graham, 30, entered tank to find collie dog that had fallen in but passed out

Larisa Brown

19:37, 28 January 2013


20:48, 28 January 2013

Emma Rice, pictured at her father’s and brothers’ funeral last year, told an inquest today how love for her family drove her to enter the fume-filled tank

The sister of a rising rugby star killed with his father and brother in a slurry tank accident has said love for her family drove her to twice enter the fume-filled tank in a desperate attempt to rescue them.

Ulster Rugby player Nevin Spence, 22, his brother Graham, 30, and their father Noel, 58, died at their family farm near Hillsborough, County Down last September.

An inquest in Belfast heard today the incident was first triggered when Graham Spence entered the tank to find a collie dog that had fallen in.

Emma Rice, who was also overcome by
the poisonous gases when she climbed down a ladder to try to find her
father and brothers, told Northern Ireland’s Senior Coroner John Leckey
that she knew how dangerous it was to go into the pit.

‘When it comes to the love of your family, it doesn’t matter,’ she said.

helping to pull her father from the pit, Mrs Rice passed out and fell
back into the slurry as she tried to bring Graham to safety.

She was rescued by neighbours who had rushed to the scene to help.

Mr Leckey said Mrs Rice’s actions were ‘extremely brave’.

court heard that the young artist initially fought off the attempts by
neighbours to stop her entering the tank, which was dark.

‘I remember thinking they’re not going to live in there, so it was just get them out,’ she said.

Mrs Rice’s sister Laura and mother Essie were also in court for the first day of the inquest.

The incident happened just after 6pm on September 15.

inquest was told that Nevin and his brother had been working in the
farmyard loading wood into the Ulster star’s car, helped by friend
Andrew Oliver.

Mr Oliver and Nevin then went into the farmhouse after the rugby player’s mother called him for his dinner.

Shortly afterwards, Noel Spence came into the house and said the dog had fallen into the tank.

tank was located under a shed that housed calves. Accessible through
eight manholes, it was around 10ft deep and, at the time of the
accident, there was around three-and-a-half feet of slurry at the

The men went to the
shed and lowered a ladder into one of the manholes. Graham climbed down
with a torch and conducted a quick search for the animal.

his statement, which was read to the court in his absence, Mr Oliver
said: ‘After about 15 to 20 seconds it looked like Graham was giving up
the search.’

He said he then started climbing up the ladder again.

the point when his head was just about at ground level – he had looked
fine until then – he passed out and sank back into the tank.’

Seeing his brother fall into the slurry, Nevin then climbed down. Mr Oliver rushed off to call for help.

Shortly afterwards, the Ireland under-20 international also succumbed to the poisonous fumes and collapsed into the slurry.

Noel then went down into the tank. He managed to retrieve Graham and began carrying him back up the ladder. Mr Oliver grabbed hold of Graham’s clothing from above as his father climbed upwards.

‘Noel was overcome and fell down the ladder,’ he said.

Tragic: Former Ulster Rugby player Nevin Spence, 22, pictured on his family farm in County Down

Noel Spence, 58, left, and his son Graham Spence, 30, right, who died after falling into their farm’s slurry tank

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

Mrs Rice and her husband Peter had been visiting with Graham’s wife Andrea at their house nearby when the accident happened.

As they were leaving, they noticed a car speeding up the drive and went after it to see if something was wrong.

In her statement, Mrs Rice said she ran round to the shed to investigate while her husband parked the car.

Missed: Nevin had been widely tipped to represent Ireland at international level

‘I think I remember someone saying “They’re all in the tank”,’ she told investigators.

‘Someone tried to move me away, I stopped them and got on to the ladder.’

Mr Oliver and neighbour David Wilson both tried to prevent the young woman entering the tank.

When she first climbed down, Mrs Rice located her father and, by grabbing the belt on his trousers, managed to lift him up. She was helped by neighbours to haul him up and out of the pit.

Having recently taken a first aid course, she attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

‘I then went back to the ladder and again went down a couple of steps,’ she said.

Rescue effort: Firefighters attend the farm near Hillsborough, Co. Down, where the tragedy happened

On that second attempt, she found her brother Graham and tried to lift him out.

But as she emerged out of the pit, she was overcome by the gases.

‘I suddenly felt faint and sleepy,’ she said.

‘The next thing I remember, I was in the recovery position.’

Rescuers finally managed to get both Mrs Rice and Graham out of the tank, but the search for Nevin went on.

A firefighter wearing specialist breathing equipment later found both Nevin and the dog at the bottom of the tank.

Despite frantic efforts to revive the men, Nevin and Noel Spence died at the scene, with Graham declared dead in hospital a short time later.

Mrs Rice was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast where she recovered sufficiently to be discharged to deliver a moving tribute to the men at their funerals.

During the first day of evidence a number of neighbours described how they had responded to calls for help and tried to rescue the men at the Drumlough Road farm.

Shrine: A man places a tribute to rugby player Nevin Spence at Ulster’s Ravenhill rugby ground in Belfast

Remembrance: Floral tributes to rugby player Nevin Spence are affixed to a fence at the ground

Mr Leckey said it was ‘incredulous’ that they had managed to do what they did and pull three adults, their clothes soaked in slurry, from a gas-filled underground pit.

‘You are all extremely brave, you all made frantic efforts to effect a rescue,’ he told one witness.

After hearing how the tragedy had unfolded, the coroner asked Mr Wilson was he aware of the dangers of slurry gases.

‘I think we’re all aware of the dangers but on the spur of the moment these things are done without thinking,’ he replied.

Mr Leckey said the Spences had shown an ‘understandable desire’ to save the dog.

Scene: The family home on the farm where Nevin Spence, his brother Graham and father Noel fell into a slurry tank

‘I think everyone’s instinct would be to try and rescue a family pet,’ he said.

But he later asked Fire Service Group Commander Dermot Rooney for his opinion of health and safety legislation which stated that an individual should only enter such a confined space in exceptional circumstances, and then only with the aid of breathing equipment.

‘I would absolutely be in concurrence with that,’ replied Mr Rooney.

The officer said a gas sensor was placed in the shed while the rescue was ongoing. It briefly sounded, indicating a level one warning.

Emergency: Rescue teams were called to the farm, on the outskirts of Hillsborough, Co. Down, shortly after 6pm on a Saturday night

‘If it had gone to the second level I would have had no choice but to evacuate the area,’ he added.

Mr Rooney said slurry emitted a number of harmful gases, including hydrogen sulphide, carbon monoxide, methane and ammonia.

Mr Leckey said he was concerned at the number of recent cases he had dealt with involving deaths at slurry pits, describing the situation as a ‘very serious problem’.

Northern Ireland’s state pathologist Professor Jack Crane and investigators from the region’s Health and Safety Executive are scheduled to give evidence when the inquest concludes tomorrow.

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