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Lorry container 'became unbearable 38C tomb where 39 migrants suffocated'

Will Taylor
·News Reporter
·3-min read
The trial of four men has got under way in relation to 39 people who were found dead in a lorry container in 2019. (PA/Elizabeth Cook)
The trial of four men has got under way in relation to 39 people who were found dead in a lorry container in 2019. (PA/Elizabeth Cook)

A lorry container became a hot “tomb” for 39 Vietnamese migrants who died amid a people-smuggling operation, a court has heard.

Four men are on trial for their alleged role in a people smuggling plot after the bodies of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children were found in a lorry container in Essex last year.

Among the dead found in October 2019 were 10 teenagers, two as young as 15.

They endured “unbearable” conditions, facing temperatures reaching 38.5C and having no fresh air for almost 12 hours inside the sealed container, the Old Bailey heard on Wednesday.

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right) two of four men to face trial, at the Old Bailey in London, for being part of an alleged people-smuggling ring linked to the death of 39 migrants in a lorry in Essex.
Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right) are standing trial. (Elizabeth Cook/PA)

Eamonn Harrison, 23, of Mayobridge, Northern Ireland, is accused of driving the lorry trailer to Zeebrugge in Belgium, from where it was shipped to Purfleet, Essex.

He faces 39 counts of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and denies all charges.

Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, has admitted being part of a people-smuggling plot but denies manslaughter.

Valentin Calota, 37, of Birmingham, and Christopher Kennedy, 24, of County Armagh, Northern Ireland, deny being part of a people-smuggling conspiracy.

Christopher Kennedy (left) and Valentin Calota (right) in court. (Elizabeth Cook/PA)
Christopher Kennedy (left) and Valentin Calota (right) in court. (Elizabeth Cook/PA)

Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones said the victims, who were put into the lorry in northern Europe, died from oxygen starvation and the effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.

“In short, they suffocated. There were no survivors,” he said.

Some had tried to contact their families, he said, with 28-year-old Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh attempting to send a message that read: “Maybe going to die in the container, can’t breathe any more dear”. The message did not send.

Jurors were told the cost of being smuggled across the channel in a lorry was about £10,000 per person, with people desperate to come to the UK “for a better life”.

The court heard the people-smuggling group had been successful before the loss of life in October.

File photo dated 23/10/2019 of police and forensic officers at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, after 39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants were found inside the lorry on the industrial estate. Irish haulier Ronan Hughes is due to appear in court over their deaths, after he was extradited to the UK.
Police and forensic officers at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, after 39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants were found. (PA)

“Obviously, any time you fill an airtight container with a large number of people, where they will be left for hours and hours, with no means of escape and no means of communication with the outside world – well, it is fraught with danger,” the prosecutor said.

They were driven to Zeebrugge by Harrison, who unhooked the trailer so it could be loaded on to a ship, jurors were told.

Harrison has been involved in people-smuggling as far back as May 2018, having been issued a fine – yet to be paid – after being stopped in the Calais area with 18 Vietnamese nationals in the back, the court heard.

Jurors were told he made two successful runs just days before the fatal incident, taking mostly Vietnamese migrants to Zeebrugge.

When the container with the 39 migrants arrived in Purfleet, lorry driver Maurice Robinson collected the trailer early on 23 October, and was told to “give them air quickly, but don’t let them out”, Emlyn Jones said.

“Robinson drove out of Purfleet port and almost immediately stopped and opened the doors at the back,” he said.

“What he found must haunt him still. For the 39 men and women inside, that lorry had become their tomb.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson signs a book of condolence, during a visit to Thurrock Council Offices in Essex after the bodies of 39 people were found in a lorry container last week.
Boris Johnson signs a book of condolence during a visit to Thurrock Council offices in Essex. (PA)

When Kennedy heard about the deaths, he told a friend it “must have been too many and run out of air”, the court heard.

Jurors were told Robinson has pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter and the conspiracy charge, and worked for Ronan Hughes, who ran a haulage business in County Monaghan in Northern Ireland.

Hughes, 40, has pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to assist in unlawful immigration.

The trial, which is expected to go on for up to six weeks, continues.