Coroner warns of dangers of fume inhalation at inquest into Spence family slurry tragedy


There is no safe way of working with slurry in a confined space without breathing apparatus, an inquest into the deaths of three men from one farming family has heard.

Coroner John Leckey made the remarks at the Old Townhall Court in Belfast where the inquest into the deaths of Noel Spence (58), his sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22) – a promising Ulster rugby player – got under way.

The three men died after being overcome by fumes from a slurry pit at the family farm in Hillsborough, Co Down. Noel’s daughter, Emma Spence, also fell into the tank and passed out from fumes, but survived.

In her testimony, Emma Spence said “the love you have for your family” trumped any safety considerations she had before repeatedly entering the covered slurry tank.

She described how she had been at her brother Graham’s house – which neighboured his parents’ farmhouse – on the evening of Saturday, September 15th when she became aware of cars “racing up” to her parents’ home.

‘They’re all in the tank’

“I ran back round to the yard and I remember someone saying, ‘They’re all in the tank’.” She entered the slurry tank through a manhole and descended a ladder, despite neighbours trying to hold her back.

“I saw the backside of someone and I knew from the jeans pockets that it was my dad . . . I grabbed the jean pockets and, with help, we pulled him out.” She re-entered the tank.

“I was using my feet to move around and I found something . . . I knew it was Graham . . . I put my head below [ground level] . . . suddenly I felt faint and sleepy”.

A neighbour, Claire Sloan, said Noel Spence’s widow Esme had phoned her that evening.

“She said ‘Come quick, come quick, they’re all in the tank’. Then the phone went dead.” Derek Sloan said the rescue attempt – which involved about 10 neighbours as well as paramedics, police and the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service – was “very traumatic”.

A witness statement from Andrew Oliver told how he was visiting his friend Nevin on the evening of the tragedy. “I had a cup of tea while Nevin ate his dinner. Then Noel came to the door and told us that the dog was in the slurry pit”.

When Andrew got to the shed, Graham was “shouting for Jill, the old collie” before going to get a torch. The shed had only one door and was in almost total darkness. After going down into the tank, Graham came back up the ladder. “At the point where his head was just above ground level, he passed out, and fell back in.”

Sense of chaos

Many witnesses described the sense of chaos as neighbouring farmers and emergency services attempted the rescue.

Dr Nigel Ruddell, of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, described how CPR attempts were hampered by the amount of slurry in the airways.

The inquest continues today.