The death of a young rugby star, his brother and their father in a farming tragedy in Northern Ireland has caused deep shock and disbelief, community leaders said tonight.
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 Rugby star Nevin 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 and her condition is described as stable.
There is widespread shock at the devastating blow to the remaining family members, Nevin's mother Esme and his sister Laura.
Emergency services went to the family farm in Drumlough Road outside the Co Down village shortly after 6pm on Saturday following reports that 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."
Three other people have died on Northern Ireland farms from slurry gas over the last ten years.
Presbyterian Moderator Dr Roy Patton said the scale of the latest tragedy had stunned people: "We are all left in a state of bewilderment and shock in the wake of this tragic accident.
"I know that 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."
He said each of the three men who died had touched the lives of many in sport and farming circles.
Nevin Spence was already a star of the Ulster Rugby team and was tipped to have a glittering international career ahead of him.
At Ulster's home stadium of Ravenhill in Belfast his former colleagues were visibly shaken by news of the tragedy.
Chief executive of Ulster Rugby 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 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 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, who is now director of professional rugby at the club, 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.
But he also recalled Nevin as a player who was hugely popular off the pitch, and added: "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."
Nevin was a member of the Ulster Rugby squad that reached the European Heineken cup final last season, and he was predicted to have a major international future ahead of him in the game.
The former Wallace High School player was last year named Young Player of the Year at the Irish Rugby Union Players' Association Awards.
Sports stars, fans of the young rugby player and friends of the family have paid tribute to Nevin and his bereaved relatives, and floral tributes were today left otuside 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 teammates and everyone at Ulster Rugby who have lost a true colleague and friend."
The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) said the deaths had shocked the entire farming community.
UFU president Harry Sinclair said: "On behalf of all our members, I would like to extend our deepest sympathies to the family involved."
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) said it responded to a 999 call at about 6.15pm following reports that at least three people had fallen into a slurry tank.
It said it immediately sent three rapid response paramedics, four accident and emergency vehicles and an ambulance service doctor to the scene.
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service also attended and rescued four people from the slurry pit.
Paramedics attempted to resuscitate the men, and while one showed initial signs of responding to treatment, all three died.