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HGV driver accused over deaths of 39 migrants 'caught with people in trailer a year before Essex tragedy'

Will Taylor
·News Reporter
·3-min read
Harrison, bottom right, denies the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants. (PA/Essex Police)
Harrison, bottom right, denies the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants. (PA/Essex Police)

A lorry driver accused of the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants was previously stopped with people of the same ethnicity in his trailer, a court has been told.

The migrants’ bodies were found on 23 October, 2019, in a lorry container that had arrived in Purfleet, Essex, from Zeebrugge, Belgium.

Eamonn Harrison, 23, of Newry, County Down, Northern Ireland, is accused of picking up the migrants in his lorry trailer and taking them to Zeebrugge, where he dropped it off on 22 October, 2019.

He denies 39 counts of manslaughter and being part of a people smuggling conspiracy and said he did not know the migrants were in the container.

Harrison said he felt “s****” and “devastated” for the migrants’ families.

On Wednesday, the Old Bailey heard he was stopped by Border Force in May 2018, when officers found 18 Vietnamese migrants sitting on boxes of waffles in his trailer.

He told the court he was “shocked” they were there, as was his haulier boss Ronan Hughes.

CCTV showing Eamonn Harrison purchasing items at a truck stop in Belgium. (PA/Essex Police)
CCTV showing Eamonn Harrison purchasing items at a truck stop in Belgium. (PA/Essex Police)

Harrison said he was sent on his way after being issued a civil penalty notice.

The court also heard that he crashed in May 2019, when he wrote off a tractor and trailer and ruined a load of Danish bacon.

“I was not in a good place. I was drinking. I was actually drunk when I had the crash,” he said.

Asked about Hughes’s reaction, he said: “At first he was concerned. Once he knew I was alright, he was not happy.”

Harrison told the court he went to Spain to stay with his parents, ignoring Hughes’s attempts to contact him.

When he faced Hughes, the haulier offered Harrison a reduced wage to pay off £16,000 in damage, the court heard.

Hughes offered “something else” if Harrison would “load stolen goods”, Harrison said.

He told the court he was unhappy about that but agreed to do so because he owed Hughes money, and said he would “walk away from the tractor and come back 15 minutes later because I did not want to have anything to do with it”.

Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right) deny manslaughter. (PA/Elizabeth Cook)
Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right) deny manslaughter. (PA/Elizabeth Cook)
39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants were found inside a lorry at Purfleet. (PA)
The bodies of 39 Vietnamese migrants were found inside a lorry in Purfleet, Essex. (PA)

Jurors have been told that the container, which was loaded onto a ship just after 3.30pm on 22 October, would have reached temperatures of 38.5C and got to lethal levels of carbon dioxide by 10.30pm.

The prosecution described the container as a “tomb” in which the migrants would have suffocated.

Their desperate pleas have been played to the court, and jurors heard how they asked for the container to be opened, left messages for loved ones and attempted to call Vietnamese police.

CCTV shows 26-year-old lorry driver Maurice Robinson picking up the trailer at Purfleet on 23 October.

He was allegedly told by Hughes to “give them air quickly”. He discovered the bodies at 1.13am and called an ambulance 23 minutes later, jurors have been told.

CCTV shows Eamonn Harrison, 23, driving a lorry onto a ship in Zeebrugge. (PA/Essex Police)
CCTV shows Eamonn Harrison, 23, driving a lorry on to a ship in Zeebrugge, Belgium. (PA/Essex Police)
CCTV of the trailer being taken off the ship at Port of Purfleet. (PA/Essex Police)
CCTV of the trailer being taken off the ship at the Port of Purfleet. (PA/Essex Police)

The court has heard that Robinson and Hughes have admitted manslaughter of the migrants.

Harrison’s co-accused Gheorghe Nica, alleged to be a key organiser, also denies manslaughter, and has said he did not want to get into people smuggling but was involved in two runs in October 2019, separate to the fatal one.

Harrison, Christopher Kennedy, a 24-year-old lorry driver from County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and Valentin Calota, 37, of Birmingham, deny being part of a wider people-smuggling conspiracy.

The trial continues.