Essex lorry deaths: Vietnamese migrants called relatives while suffocating, court hears

By Amelia Gentleman

Desperate attempts to call family members and the Vietnamese emergency services were made by migrants as they realised they were suffocating in a shipping container during their sea crossing to England, the Old Bailey has heard.

The criminals accused of organising the transportation of 39 Vietnamese people may have squeezed two loads of human cargo into one lorry, out of a greedy desire to secure the £10,000 a head payment from each passenger, the court was told. Temperatures inside the container rose rapidly, and the oxygen ran out well before the container arrived in the UK.

Some of the victims attempted to smash their way out of the lorry with a metal post during the crossing without success. “There was no way out, and no one to hear them, no one to help them,” William Emlyn Jones, prosecuting, told the court, on the third day of the people smuggling trial.

A selfie taken by one passenger, hours before she died, shows her sweating from the extreme heat; many of the passengers stripped down to their underwear inside the freight container.

Once the container was loaded on to a ship at Zeebrugge to the UK there was no mobile reception, but recordings found on the 50 phones recovered by police revealed several goodbye messages for relatives.

Nguyen Tho Tuan recorded a message to his wife, child and mother, saying: “It’s Tuan. I am sorry. I cannot take care of you. I am sorry. I am sorry. I cannot breathe. I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.”

In another recording, a male voice says: “I can’t breathe. I’m sorry. I have to go now.” A voice was just audible in the background of one of the recordings saying: “He’s dead.”

A detailed account of the journey taken by the 39 passengers, aged between 15 and 44, on the day they died emerged in evidence collated from mobile phone records, recovered text messages between the alleged co-conspirators, CCTV footage and images from automatic number plate recognition cameras.

Many of the victims, 10 of whom were teenagers, travelled from Paris on the morning of 22 October and were ferried by taxi to an agricultural shed near the village of Bierne in northern France, where a lorry driven by a defendant, Eamonn Harrison, stopped. A witness said she saw a number of people, whom she described as migrants, running out of the shed and climbing into the back of the lorry.

The container was later dropped by Harrison in Zeebrugge and picked up at Purfleet port by the lorry driver, Maurice Robinson, at about 1am on 23 October, by which point the 39 passengers had been inside the sealed container for 12 hours. The shipworker who unloaded the container from the ship noticed a “pungent smell” coming from inside.

Robinson, the driver charged with picking up the container from the Essex port, was sent a text message by his boss, Ronan Hughes, instructing him to stop the lorry just six minutes after leaving the port. “Give them air quickly but don’t let them out,” it read.

“This message reveals that the conspirators knew they had been taking a very grave risk by loading the trailer as full as they had. They were, of course, right to be concerned. However, they were much too late,” Emlyn Jones told the court.

Black and white CCTV footage played to the court shows Robinson opening the container doors in a deserted street; a cloud of steam-like vapour is visible pouring out from the back of the vehicle. He took a step back and stood for 90 seconds staring at the scene inside.

Robinson waited 15 minutes before he called 999, first contacting his co-conspirators after discovering the bodies, and then driving the lorry around the block, before deciding to stop again and call for an ambulance

“I’m a lorry driver. I’ve just lifted a trailer from the port. There’s loads of them. There’s immigrants in the back. They’re all lying on the ground,” he told the 999 call handler. “I heard the noise in the back and I opened up the door there’s a bunch of them lying. The trailer’s jammed. There’s approximately 25. They’re not breathing.”

The call handler asked him to describe the precise condition of the people inside the container, but Robinson said he could not bring himself to return to the vehicle. “I don’t really want to look in, to be honest with you.”

Gheorghe Nica 43, and Harrison, 23, deny 39 counts of manslaughter. Harrison, Christopher Kennedy, 24, and Valentin Calota 37, deny being part of a wider people-smuggling operation, which Nica has admitted.

Four other defendants have already admitted their part in the people-smuggling plot. Among them are Robinson, 26, and Hughes, 41, who have admitted manslaughter.