A rugby player tipped as a future international star has died alongside his father and brother after what was thought to have been an attempt to save a pet dog from a slurry tank.
Two senior investigators from the Health and Safety Executive of Northern Ireland (HSENI) were yesterday probing the deaths of Ulster rugby player Nevin Spence, his brother Graham, 30, and father Noel, 52, at the family farm near Hillsborough, County Down, on Saturday evening.
According to reports, a family dog fell into the tank before Noel attempted to retrieve it. His sons subsequently tried to rescue their father, but were overcome by the poisonous gases.
Last night the family released a statement saying the men had been very close and died "trying to save each other". "The families of Noel, Graham and Nevin Spence are trying very hard to come to terms with their tragic loss," said the statement read by Rev Rodney Stout, senior pastor at Ballynahinch Baptist Church.
"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 family is being supported and comforted by other family members, friends and neighbours."
Two of the men were declared dead at the scene, while a third was taken to hospital, but died shortly afterwards.
Nevin, 22, had recently represented Ireland for the first time, but continued to work on the farm and had recently become a brand ambassador for the Dairy Council of Northern Ireland.
His sister, Emma, an artist, remained in a stable condition in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast yesterday after also entering the slurry tank and being treated for fume inhalation.
The HSENI said yesterday that the three deaths had been caused by exposure to slurry gases. The combination of cow manure and water is often stored in large, underground tanks on farms before being spread onto fields as fertiliser. Gases present in the tanks include methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and hydrogen sulphide.
"Hydrogen sulphide is extremely poisonous to both people and animals," says HSENI guidance. "It affects the nervous system causing symptoms which range from discomfort to sudden death."
Nevin Spence was a member of the Ulster Rugby squad that reached the European Heineken cup final last season. Last year he was named Young Player of the Year at the Irish Rugby Union Players' Association Awards.
Tributes were yesterday paid to the player and his family. "Such sad news and my thoughts go out to his family," tweeted New Zealand star Dan Carter. Northern Ireland golfer Rory McIlroy, said: "Just heard the tragic news... Makes you cherish every day you have on this earth."