A WOMAN whose father and two brothers 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, Ms 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 Ms 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.
"I remember thinking they're not going to live in there, so it was just get them out," she said.
Ms Rice's sister, Laura, and mother, Essie, were also in court for the first day of the inquest.
Mrs Rice and her husband Peter had been visiting with Graham's wife Andrea at their house nearby when the accident took place.
It happened just after 6pm on September 15.
The inquest was told that Nevin and his brother had been working in the farmyard loading wood into the Ulster star's car, helped by friend Andrew Oliver.
Mr Oliver and Nevin then went into the farmhouse after the rugby player's mother called him for his dinner.
Shortly afterwards, Noel Spence came into the house and said the dog had fallen into the tank.
The tank was located under a shed that housed calves. Accessible through eight manholes, it was around 10ft deep and, at the time of the accident, there were around three-and-a-half feet of slurry at the bottom.
The men went to the shed and lowered a ladder into one of the manholes. Graham climbed down with a torch and conducted a quick search for the animal.
In his statement, which was read to the court in his absence, Mr Oliver said: "After about 15 to 20 seconds, it looked like Graham was giving up the search."
He said he then started climbing up the ladder again.
"At the point when his head was just about at ground level – he had looked fine until then – he passed out and sank back into the tank."
Seeing his brother fall into the slurry, Nevin then climbed down. Mr Oliver rushed off to call for help. Shortly afterwards, the Ireland under-20 international also succumbed to the poisonous fumes and collapsed into the slurry.
Noel then went down into the tank. He managed to retrieve Graham and began carrying him back up the ladder.
Mr Oliver grabbed hold of Graham's clothing from above as his father climbed upwards.
"Noel was overcome and fell down the ladder," he said.
"I wasn't able to hold Graham without Noel's help."
Northern Ireland's state pathologist Professor Jack Crane and investigators from the region's Health and Safety Executive are scheduled to give evidence when the inquest continues.