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Spence tragedy: Emma pays tribute to father and brothers

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Nevin Spence's coffin is covered with his Ulster Flag Jersey after his funeral service at Ballynahinch Baptist church, in Co Down. Photo: PA

Nevin Spence's coffin is covered with his Ulster Flag Jersey after his funeral service at Ballynahinch Baptist church, in Co Down. Photo: PA

Mickey Harte, Tyrone GAA manager (centre) at Ballynahinch Baptist church. Photo: PA

Mickey Harte, Tyrone GAA manager (centre) at Ballynahinch Baptist church. Photo: PA

Essie Spence (R), the widow of Noel and mother of Nevin and Graham Spence, walks with Graham's wife Andrea (C), behind the cortege after the funeral service at Ballynahinch Baptist Church

Essie Spence (R), the widow of Noel and mother of Nevin and Graham Spence, walks with Graham's wife Andrea (C), behind the cortege after the funeral service at Ballynahinch Baptist Church

Hearses carrying the coffins of Nevin Spence, his brother Graham and father Noel leave Ballynahinch Baptist Church

Hearses carrying the coffins of Nevin Spence, his brother Graham and father Noel leave Ballynahinch Baptist Church

Ulster Rugby player John Aofa (right with beard) and colleagues arrive at Ballynahinch Baptist church, in Co Down for the funeral service of Noel Spence, 68, and his sons Graham, 30, and Nevin, 22

Ulster Rugby player John Aofa (right with beard) and colleagues arrive at Ballynahinch Baptist church, in Co Down for the funeral service of Noel Spence, 68, and his sons Graham, 30, and Nevin, 22

Emma Spence was hospitalised after bravely fighting to rescue her brothers and father from the slurry pit  on the family farm

Emma Spence was hospitalised after bravely fighting to rescue her brothers and father from the slurry pit on the family farm

Nevin Spence died along with his father and brother at their farm when they fell into a slurry pit (John Dickson/Ulster Rugby/PA)

Nevin Spence died along with his father and brother at their farm when they fell into a slurry pit (John Dickson/Ulster Rugby/PA)

Noel Spence

Noel Spence

Graham Spence

Graham Spence

Tributes are left at Ravenhill rugby ground, Belfast, yesterday for Noel Spence, son, Graham and rugby star Nevin

Tributes are left at Ravenhill rugby ground, Belfast, yesterday for Noel Spence, son, Graham and rugby star Nevin

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness signs a book of condolence at Ravenhill rugby ground, Belfast, in memory of rugby player Nevin Spence

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness signs a book of condolence at Ravenhill rugby ground, Belfast, in memory of rugby player Nevin Spence

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore signs a book of condolence at Ravenhill rugby ground, Belfast, in memory of rugby player Nevin Spence

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore signs a book of condolence at Ravenhill rugby ground, Belfast, in memory of rugby player Nevin Spence

Flowers are laid at Ravenhill Grounds in memory of young rugby star Nevin Spence, who died when he fell into a slurry pit

Flowers are laid at Ravenhill Grounds in memory of young rugby star Nevin Spence, who died when he fell into a slurry pit

A woman reads tributes left at Ravenhill,
home of Ulster rugby in Belfast

A woman reads tributes left at Ravenhill, home of Ulster rugby in Belfast

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A woman who bravely tried in vain to rescue her father and two brothers - one of them a star rugby player - when they were overcome by killer fumes has paid an emotional tribute to them at their funeral.

Emma Spence twice climbed into a manhole and then down into a slurry tank on the family farm near Hillsborough, Co Down, where her father Noel, 58, and brothers, Graham, 30, and Ulster Rugby player Nevin, 22, all died at the weekend.

"They were gentlemen," Miss Spence told mourners at nearby Ballynahinch Baptist Church.

"They were hard-working men. They were not perfect but they were genuine. They were best friends.

"They were Godly men - they didn't talk about God, they just did God.

"They were just ordinary - but God made them extraordinary."

Miss Spence, who was admitted to hospital after Saturday's accident, was accompanied by her sister Laura, their mother Essie and Graham's wife Andrea at the funeral service.

Members of the Ulster Rugby team carried Nevin's coffin into and out of the church.

Irish rugby coach Declan Kidney and Tyrone Gaelic football manager Mickey Harte were among other well-known sporting faces amid more than 2,000 people who attended.

It is understood the tragedy unfolded when Graham lowered a ladder into the manhole to retrieve a pet dog which disappeared into the slurry tank.

Graham's father then went in to try to save his son and he was followed by Nevin when he realised the other two were in danger from the poisonous slurry fumes.

Miss Spence, an artist, then went down and managed to pull her father on to the ladder where she was assisted by neighbours.

They immediately tried to resuscitate Noel. Miss Spence then went back a second time and found Graham in the tank lying in two to three feet of slurry.

But she was then overcome by the odourless fumes and had to be pulled free by the frantic neighbours who ran to the tank after hearing the calls for help.

Details of the accident were outlined ahead of the funeral by Stormont Health Minister Edwin Poots, who is a neighbour and close family friend of the Spences.

"Emma risked her own life to try and save her father and brothers," he said.

"Physically I don't know how she managed it because her dad is a big man. With the weight of the slurry and so on, she needed to muster unbelievable strength to get him pulled up.

"And then she went back in again, risking her life a second time. It is maybe some comfort to the family she didn't lose her life. She was incredibly brave." Health and safety experts are carrying out an investigation into the fatal incident.

During her address to mourners, Emma Spence spoke affectionately about each of her loved ones in turn.

Earlier the Reverend Rodney Stout described the men as "three peas in a pod".

"The two sons, while having their individual characters and giftedness, nevertheless were most certainly chips off the old block," he said.

The pastor said they had left behind as positive a legacy as any family could have.

He said the circumstances of their deaths - when they risked their lives to save each other - reflected how they lived life.

"That expression of helping each other was not simply one that manifested itself in a moment of danger or in the heat of a moment," he said.

"It was resolutely their day-to-day motivation in life for every member of their family and indeed towards their neighbours, fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, colleagues, friends and strangers."

He said Noel Spence loved his children and grandchildren dearly.

"He wasn't the sort of man to verbalise his affection but members of his family and those outside knew what it was to be loved by him and cared for by him," he said.

"Maybe some of you here today are still sporting bruises on your arm from one of his firm affectionate jabs to your upper arm.

"People have told me it would be difficult to find a more hospitable neighbour or trustworthy businessman."

Mr Stout added: "He was a very private and unobtrusive man and the thought of the attention he and his family are attracting just now would quite literally horrify him."

The pastor said Graham, father to young children Nathan and Georgia, was committed to his family and the farm.

"His motivation for his tireless effort and dedicated hard work was to provide for Andrea, Nathan and Georgia," he said.

"Andrea knew him as her loving, devoted husband, her best friend and true soulmate. They often joked with each other that they existed within their own bubble and no one loved each other as much as they did. He doted on their two children Nathan and Georgia, and whenever they were around him his eyes lit up."

He noted that he was also a keen rugby player.

"He could have pursued a career in rugby but chose instead to concentrate his efforts on farming," he said.

The pastor then turned to rising sporting star Nevin.

He said the young man tipped to represent Ireland at international level did not consider himself a famous rugby player.

The minister recalled an icebreaker game at a recent church event when Nevin, when asked for a word to describe himself, chose "normal".

"That is really how he viewed himself and he, like Noel and Graham, attributed his ability to keep his feet on the ground, his head out of the clouds and his life on an even keel as directly related to the relationship he had with God through Jesus Christ," he said.

A private family service was held at the Spences' house and farm on the Drumlough Road ahead of the funeral.

After the funeral, the three men were taken for burial at the nearby Inch Cemetery.