Community mourns Spence deaths
A book condolences was opened today at Ravenhill rugby ground following the death of promising rugby player Nevin Spence, his father and brother in a farming accident in the North.
The North’s farming and sporting communities joined together to express their grief yesterday after Ulster player and fledgling Ireland player Nevin (22), his father Noel (52) and brother Graham (30) died after being pulled from a slurry container at the family farm near Hillsborough, Co Down on Saturday..
Nevin’s sister Emma was released today from Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital where she was being treated for the effects of inhaling fumes.
In a statement last night, relatives said: "The families of Noel, Graham and Nevin Spence are trying very hard to come to terms with their tragic loss. 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 sense of shock in the quaint, picture-postcard village of Hillsborough – more usually associated with political breakthroughs and royal visits – was palpable yesterday following the deaths.
At the Retro Cafe, Victoria Beck, an old schoolfriend of Nevin’s, said he would be “desperately missed”.
“He’d come in here on Saturday evenings all bruised from a rugby match,” she said. “He was one of the nicest people, the whole family were. I couldn’t sleep last night.”
Next door, at the Plough Inn, conversation was dominated by the fatalities. William Meek said although he had not known the family, he was “deeply saddened” for Ulster Rugby. “I go to Ravenhill regularly and the team were on a great roll,” he said. “This is such a blow to the entire rugby family.”
Outside Hillsborough Free Presbyterian Church parishioners expressed disbelief.
“I knew the family well,” said retired farmer Wilfred Martin. “It’s a terrible shock.”
Another local farmer, Clive Weir, agreed: “It’s a bad job. I had a brother drown in a slurry pit more than 30 years ago, so I’ve some idea of what they’re going through.”
Also emerging from church was Stormont minister for health and part-time farmer Edwin Poots. “Ulster Rugby can replace Nevin, but that family cannot replace their three loved ones,” he said.
It is thought Noel Spence was the first to enter the slurry pit, followed by his two sons in quick succession and then his daughter. Unconfirmed reports have suggested Noel Spence was trying to rescue the family dog.
They are survived by mother Esme, Emma and a second daughter, Laura. Graham Spence was married with two young children.
In Belfast, at the Ravenhill home of Ulster Rugby, fans and friends left flowers, rugby tops and scarves bearing condolences.
One tribute read: “There are too many words to describe Nevin Spence. To me he was a true Ulsterman, but more importantly, a friend.” Another said simply: “Nevin – what a guy, on and off the pitch.”
Tributes also poured in from politicians.
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore visited Ravenhill to pay his respects on behalf of the Dublin Government. Mr Gilmore described the accident as a “deep, deep tragedy”.
“I grew up on a farm, I understand how something like this could happen," he said. “It’s a deep tragedy, it’s a great loss and I think that everybody on this island of Ireland will express their sympathy with the Spence family.”
First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness released a statement saying: “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.”
The Health and Safety Executive said its investigation was ongoing, but early indications were that the three had died from toxic fumes.
Spence had played 42 times for Ulster, as well as representing Ireland against the Barbarians at Kingsholm last May. He also appeared with the Irish Wolfhounds on three occasions. At a press conference yesterday, Ulster Rugby director David Humphreys called Spence a “dream player” while Shane Logan, chief executive of Ulster Rugby, dubbed him a “man of absolute integrity”.
Additional reporting: PA