THE “chaotic” final moments of the three Spence men stood in stark contrast to the calm solemnity of a Belfast courtroom.
The large, high-ceilinged Court One in the Old Town Hall was filled with family members and a raft of witnesses as proceedings got under way.
Dressed in his ceremonial blue frilled robe, coroner John Leckey sat granite-faced, listening as his clerk read statement after statement from eyewitnesses at the death scene.
The accounts painted a picture of panic and confusion on the evening of September 15, 2012, with police, firemen, neighbours, family and paramedics trying to rescue all four members who had entered the underground slurry tank.
There was hardly a sound from observers in the packed courtroom, besides the scratching of journalists’ pens and the rustling of paperwork.
Throughout the proceedings, Laura Hutchinson and Emma Rice, the daughters of Noel, sat in the front row.
They listened quietly, with Laura Hutchinson looking down for much of the time. Noel’s wife Essie was also present at the inquest.
Behind them on the back benches were around 30 others, many of them witnesses waiting to be called to the stand.
Within just under two hours of opening the inquest, testimony from around 20 witnesses had been heard, with statements read out at quick-fire speed by the clerk.
Malcolm Downey, from the Health and Safety Executive, at one point turned on a large flat-screen television and gave a PowerPoint presentation showing the court the various buildings on the farm where the accident occurred.
An aerial view of the farm, just about visible from the reporters’ bench, showed how relatively isolated the rural homestead was.
With markings to indicate the Spence’s nearest neighbours, the bird’s eye photograph was dotted with a smattering of homes spread over an expanse of green fields.
Not long after the court began at 10am, Laura Hutchinson was called to the stand and asked to confirm the occupations of the deceased.
Dressed in a black top, she took the oath upon the Bible, her voice barely audible as she repeated the words of the clerk and promised to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.
The coroner said he understood Noel and Graham worked as farmers, but he asked if her brother Nevin Spence’s occupation should be recorded as “professional rugby player”.
She agreed that it should.
Later yesterday morning, her sister Emma Rice, who had climbed into the slurry tank as well as the three men, also took the stand.
Wearing a pink jacket and a gold necklace, she said that after descending the ladder herself, she saw someone floating in the slurry.
“It was my father,” she said.
She felt around with her foot and discovered her brother Graham too.
“Suddenly I felt faint and sleepy,” she said.
The next thing she remembered was waking up in a recovery position and seeing the emergency services working on the three men.
A female constable, one of the police officers attached to the Lisburn station, described how she and her colleagues had been called to the incident just after 6.15pm that evening.
She arrived at a scene where “10 to 15” people were present, to find a female covered with slurry wriggling about on the floor.
She described the situation as “chaotic, with a lot of shouting”.
Dermot Rooney, group commander for the fire service, was the last to give evidence before proceedings finished at around noon. He was primly dressed in a crisp, black uniform with gleaming metal insignia, and had a fire officer’s hat under his arm.
But the account which he gave was one of messy, dangerous work by his firefighters, with them having to don breathing apparatus and climb down the ladder and into waist-high slurry.
Slurry gas can be so dangerous that he thought he might have to evacuate the entire scene, he said.
The coroner said that the situation down there would have been “close to pitch black” and that the fire officers would have had to search for bodies largely “by touch and feel”.
The family of the deceased said softly that they had no questions to ask the witnesses, and filed out of the room calmly as proceedings were adjourned.
The inquest is set to reconvene at 10.30am on Tuesday.