The death of a young rugby star, his brother and their father in a farming tragedy in Northern Ireland has caused deep shock and disbelief, community leaders have said.
Investigators are still examining the circumstances of the accident in Co Down, which is believed to have unfolded as the loved ones came to each other's aid after falling into a slurry tank at their farm in Hillsborough.
Ulster Rugby star Nevin Spence, 22, was killed along with his 30-year-old brother Graham, who is married with two children, and their 52-year-old father Noel. The sportsman's sister Emma, a well known artist, was taken to Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital for treatment for the inhalation of fumes and her condition is described as stable.
There is widespread shock at the devastating blow to the remaining family members, Nevin's mother Esme and his sister Laura.
Emergency services went to the family farm in Drumlough Road outside the Co Down village shortly after 6pm on Saturday following reports that four people had fallen into the slurry pit. Investigations into the cause of the tragedy are ongoing, amid unconfirmed reports that the family died trying to save one another, or that the tragedy may have been sparked by efforts to save a dog from the slurry tank.
The Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) is to investigate the circumstances and establish a clear picture of how the tragedy unfolded. It said: "From HSENI's initial investigations, it understands that the three family members who entered an underground slurry tank died from the effects of exposure to slurry gases. The exact sequence of events is not yet clear but HSENI is investigating a definite line of enquiry."
Presbyterian Moderator Dr Roy Patton said the scale of the latest tragedy had stunned people: "We are all left in a state of bewilderment and shock in the wake of this tragic accident. I know that prayers were said in many churches this morning and I would assure the Spence family of our continuing support in both public and private devotions as we pray for them at this awful time and for Emma's speedy recovery."
Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said they were deeply saddened by the tragic accident. The Ministers said: "This tragedy has shocked the entire community and is a terrible reminder to us all of the dangers of farming life. Our thoughts are also with farmers everywhere at this time.
"Nevin was a rising star of local rugby and it is only a matter of months ago, in happier times, that we had the honour of hosting him and his colleagues at a reception in Parliament Buildings to celebrate the achievement of Ulster in reaching the Heineken Cup final. His untimely death is a blow for the game in the province and we sympathise with his teammates and everyone at Ulster Rugby who have lost a true colleague and friend."
The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) said the deaths had shocked the entire farming community. UFU president Harry Sinclair said: "On behalf of all our members, I would like to extend our deepest sympathies to the family involved."