Coroner warns of dangers of toxic farm fumes which claimed child’s life

Robert Christie
Robert Christie

A coroner delivered a stark warning of the dangers of mixing slurry after presiding over the inquest for an eight-year-old schoolboy who died from inhaling toxic fumes.

Robert Christie from Dunloy in Co Antrim was overcome by slurry gases as he and his father Robert Snr worked on the farm of a family friend last year.

Mr Christie was left in a critical condition but went on to recover from the ordeal, which was triggered when he started the process of pumping slurry from an underground pit into a tractor-driven tank for spreading.

Both he and his son were found unconscious in the shed housing the slurry pit by the owner of the Dunloy farm, Robert Brownlow, who had left the pair working in the shed around 20 minutes earlier to have his lunch.

Coroner Suzanne Anderson said she hoped the “catastrophic tragedy” would highlight the dangers of mixing slurry.

“Robert’s tragic death brings to the fore again the risks associated with slurry tanks and I hope by highlighting a tragedy such as this no other family will have to endure what his family has had to with the death of poor Robert,” she said.

The incident last June was the latest in a series to rock the agricultural community in Northern Ireland.

The most high-profile accident unfolded in September 2012 when up-and-coming Ulster rugby star Nevin Spence, his father Noel and brother Graham died after entering a slurry tank at their farm outside Hillsborough, Co Down.

On Friday Mr Christie told the coroner’s court in Ballymena his son, known to the family as Bob, loved to be out on the farm.

“Bob loved to farm and he loved to be out farming with me,” he said of the Knockahollet Primary School pupil.

Mr Christie told the court he had reversed the tank and tractor into the shed and had got out of the cab to go round to the back to adjust the machinery.

“That is the last memory I have of that day,” he said.

Mr Brownlow, praising postman Joseph Smyth and neighbour Samuel Lyons, recalled their efforts to save the father and son, who were lying four feet apart inside the shed.

Frantic attempts to resuscitate Robert Jnr were to no avail, with no signs of life detected during prolonged CPR by the men and then by paramedics and doctors.

He was airlifted to hospital in Belfast but was later declared dead.

Inspector David Lowe of the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland told the court a number of recommended precautions for slurry mixing had been taken, including a degree of ventilation and the removal of animals from the shed.

But he noted that on the day of the tragedy it was very still, with little movement of air to disperse the toxic fumes.

Mr Lowe said the HSENI advised farmers to leave the shed for the first 30 minutes of the process.

“Unfortunately in this case it seems this particular precaution had not been taken,” he said.

He stressed the “unpredictability” of slurry.

“Unfortunately it only takes one incident to be caught by slurry gas,” said the inspector.

He again pointed to the still conditions as the potentially key factor in the fatal incident.

“The weather conditions were not good for moving slurry gas out of the shed.”

Mr Lowe said HSENI had been involved in efforts to raise awareness of the dangers of mixing slurry.

The coroner said: “I am sure it is a message you would want to reinforce today. There is a lesson sadly to be learned here.”