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David Young: The Spences' testament of courage

Emma Spence, who almost lost her own life battling to save those of her brothers and father, had last Wednesday to reach for the strength to address the thousands who had come to mourn with her and her family. Naturally it was a reflection steeped in poignancy. But it was also affectionate, humorous and, above all, uplifting.

She spoke alone, but insisted her words were those of each of the four women left devastated by the loss of Noel, Graham and Nevin.

As her mother Essie, sister Laura and sister-in-law Andrea watched on inside Ballynahinch Baptist Church, the young artist showed the kind of fortitude that has sustained them all since last weekend's horrifying accident.

"I am reading this but these are the thoughts of my mum, Laura, Andrea and me," she said assuredly.

"Dad. He was the one you probably saw taking up half the Drumlough Road with the tractor. He's the one at 58 years of age still had the most natural bright blond hair any woman would kill for.

"He is the one that greeted you with a thump on the arm. He is the one who christened you with a new nickname no matter who you were.

"To me he was the one sitting at the kitchen table with his coffee made in only mum's best china cup listening to my every worry and telling me the truth whether I wanted to hear it or not.

"Graham. He is the one that worked in the background. He's the one who adored his Andrea and his kids (Georgia and Nathan) -- his little princess and his wee mate.

"He is the one that came to life when talking about farming. He's also the one who had about 15 apps on his phone to check the weather forecast. To me he is the one who protected me as I grew up. To me he is looking at me when I look at Nathan and I look at Georgia.

"Wee Nev. He is the one who sarcastically got nicknamed the superstar at home. He is the one who did not love the limelight but handled it like a pro. He is the A grade pupil. He is the one who would discuss or debate any Christian-related subject.

"To me he is the baby. To me he is the one mum had the organic blueberries and prize-winning steak ready for when he called."

She went on to describe them as ordinary men made extraordinary by God. The three-minute dedication to the lost Spence men was typical of a service that conveyed the pain but also the hope of a grieving family whose Christian faith has remained undented in the face of tragedy.

The incredible heroism of Emma Spence emerged on the day of the funerals. She twice climbed into a manhole and then down into a slurry tank on the family farm near Hillsborough, Co Down, where the three men all died trying to save each other.

Graham first lowered a ladder into the manhole to retrieve a pet dog which disappeared into the tank, according to Edwin Poots, a friend and near neighbour. His father Noel then went in to try to save his son and he was followed by Nevin, a member of the Ulster rugby squad.

Emma, an artist, then went down and managed to pull her father onto the ladder where she was assisted by neighbours who ran to the tank after hearing the calls for help. They immediately tried to resuscitate him. She then went back a second time and found Graham in the tank. But she was then overcome by the odourless fumes and had to be pulled free by the frantic neighbours.

At the funeral service, Reverend Rodney Stout also raised some laughs while giving heartfelt tributes to the three members of his congregation. Noel, he said, would have a question for God when he met him -- why had he not designed the cow to make milking easier?

He noted that Graham had watched Andrea from afar at church before they got together. "To other young men in church today thinking of watching women from afar you may find there are laws against such behaviour," he joked. He revealed how Nevin had been known to share his faith with random strangers and recounted a story of how he had once given his Bible away to a taxi driver.

Mourners had begun to arrive at the church three hours before last Wednesday's funeral. An overflow then gathered in silence in the car park to listen to the service.

Sunday Independent