A woman whose father and two brothers, one of them a rising rugby star, died in a slurry pit accident has said love for her family drove her to twice enter the fume-filled tank in a bid to rescue them.
Ulster Rugby player Nevin Spence, 22, his brother Graham, 30, and their father Noel, 58, died at the family farm near Hillsborough, Co Down, last September. An inquest in Belfast heard 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.
After 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". The court heard that the young artist initially fought off the attempts of neighbours to stop her entering the tank, which was dark.
The fatal chain of events was triggered when the pet 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, an Ireland under 20 international, then went down to try to save his brother but also succumbed to the fumes. Their father followed the men in. 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.
Mrs 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 in a bid to save the men. On the second occasion she also collapsed into the slurry. The young artist was rescued by a neighbour and survived the incident.
Delivering his findings, Mr Leckey praised the "heroic efforts" of Mrs Rice and the neighbours, friends and emergency service personnel who had rushed to the scene. "I have total admiration for everyone who joined together to try to rescue the three men," he said. "Not only family members and neighbours but also police and fire brigade."