A FATHER and his two sons killed in a farm accident had died as they had lived -- trying to help each other, their heartbroken relatives said yesterday.
Noel Spence (52) and his sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22) all died when they were overcome by fumes in a slurry tunnel at the family farm in Hillsborough, Co Down, on Saturday night.
Mr Spence's daughter, Emma, survived the incident.
The North's Health & Safety Executive believe that her father had gone into the slurry pit to rescue a pet dog. Graham then went to the aid of his father, followed by Nevin, a rising star of Ulster Rugby Club.
In a statement, Emma, her sister Laura and their mother Esme said they were devastated by the 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 statement said.
"The family is being supported and comforted by other family members, friends and neighbours.
"Arrangements for a thanksgiving service for the three is currently under way."
The closeness of the family, all devout Baptists, was echoed by their pastor at Ballynahinch Baptist Church.
Rev Rodney Stout said the three men had died as they had lived -- together. "They were like three peas in a pod," he said. "They worked so closely together and they unfortunately died together."
Yesterday, hundreds of fans signed books of condolence at Nevin Spence's club, Ballyhnahinch and at the HQ of Ulster rugby at Ravenhill. Among them was Don Healy, father of Ireland and Leinster prop Cian.
"Nevin would have been in the Ireland camp with Cian and once that happens all provincial rivalries go out the window," said Mr Healy.
"Cian rang me on Saturday night on his way back from Italy with Leinster and he was distraught -- all the players were.
"He was extremely fond of Nevin. It will take him a long time to get over this.
"We've lost a fine young Irish player but that really is nothing to what Mrs Spence and her family have lost -- two sons and a loving father. It is really hard to take in," he added.
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore signed the book of condolence on behalf of the Government.
"This was a huge tragedy for the family," he said afterwards.
"I grew up on a farm, I understand how something like this could happen. I can picture how it could happen.
"It's a deep tragedy, it's a great loss and I think everybody on this island will express their sympathy with the Spence family."
The North's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness later met officials at Ravenhill and penned his own tribute in one of the books of condolence.
He said there had been a "solemn and quiet" meeting at the Stormont Assembly yesterday because of the deaths.
Former First Minister Ian Paisley, whose Free Presbyterian Church is close to the rugby ground, also visited Ravenhill to sign one of the books.
"It touched me, it really shook me," he said of the tragedy.
"It's a warning to us all, we're not here forever, we're travelling home."