Slurry death: Robert Christie schoolmates to get counselling

The BBC's David Maxwell says the community is still trying to take in the terrible news of this tragedy

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Trained counsellors will be on hand at a County Antrim school to help children and staff cope with the death of an eight-year-old boy.

Robert Christie was overcome by slurry gases at a farm near Dunloy on Saturday afternoon. His father, Bertie, remains critically ill in hospital.

The principal of Knockahollett Primary School, Gerry Black, said the grief felt by everyone was "unimaginable".

"Our thoughts are with Robert's mum and his two sisters," he said.

Robert and his 52-year-old father were helping out on the farm on Ballynaloob Road, near their own farm.

Both were overcome by poisonous fumes as they were mixing slurry. It is understood they were found by a postman on Saturday afternoon.

Robert was airlifted to hospital in Belfast from the farm near Dunloy, but doctors were unable to resuscitate him. His father, Bertie, remains critically ill.

Gerry Black, said the grief felt by everyone at the school was "unimaginable"

School principal Mr Black said an educational psychologist and counsellors would be available to offer support.

"A heavy grief has come over the school and Robert will be sorely missed by the whole school community," Mr Black said.

"He was in Primary 4. He was really open and full of enthusiasm. He was gentle and very popular.

"He had just such an open personality, such a bubbly wee character, interested in absolutely everything that he did," Mr Black said.

"He was a very, very gentle natured wee fella, made friends quite easily, shared his time with others and for that he was very popular.

"So his loss is going to have a huge impact on his friends, his classmates, the staff and the wider school family."

Robert's two sisters, Isobel and Alice, also attend Knockahollett Primary.

The school will gather for a special assembly on Monday morning and the teachers would then talk to the children about what happened.

Mr Black said professional help would be available to offer support where needed.

Northern Ireland's Health and Safety Executive is investigating.

Richard Wright, BBC NI agricultural correspondent

These gases are lethal; you can't smell them and you can't see them, they're heavier than air so they stay down low and people are effectively dead within a matter of seconds if they're affected by the gas.

A slurry tank is where the waste material from animals is collected and it tends to be underneath the building, so if you have a barn that cattle are in, the material's collected under the building, it falls through the floor and is collected in winter when the cattle are indoors.

You then have to spread that material as slurry onto the land. To spread it you first have to agitate it or break it up so you can spread.

It's when you go through that process to agitate it that the gases are released.

The advice is that when you agitate slurry you stay out of the building until the gas dissipates.

But the problem is you don't actually know when the gas has dissipated, you can't smell it, you can't see it and people don't tend to use meters - there are no very reliable meters widely available to detect this.

It's a fairly normal operation on the farm.

Its chief executive, Keith Morrison, said: "Incidents like this show starkly the dangers which our farming communities face and my heart goes out to those affected by this tragic accident.

"The facts tell us that farming is our most dangerous industry, and that is why members of the Farm Safety Partnership - government and the farming industry together - will continue to work every day to try to avoid these tragic events occurring."

Ulster Farmers Union president Ian Marshall said even though there are detectors that can help, a farm is not a controlled and confined space - so that it is easy to move away from safety into danger.

"Detectors have the potential the create a false sense of security. A detector may not give enough cover or assurance that the area is safe."

Mr Marshall said the lethal gas given off by slurry is colourless and odourless.

"What we say is that when you are mixing slurry, once that begins, get out and stay out of the building, that is the fail-safe way of making sure you are never exposed to the gas."

It is the latest in a long line of fatal accidents involving slurry tanks on Northern Ireland's farms.

The most high profile incident was in September 2012, when Ulster rugby player Nevin Spence, his father Noel and brother Graham died after they were overcome by fumes on their family farm.

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