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'I cannot breathe': Shocking moment final messages of migrants killed in lorry played in court

Will Taylor
·News Reporter
·3-min read

Watch: Two guilty over migrant deaths

A people-smuggling ringleader responsible for the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants shut his eyes as their desperate pleas for air and final messages to loved ones were played back in court.

Ronan Hughes and seven other defendants are being sentenced at the Old Bailey over a people-smuggling operation and the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated while being smuggled from Belgium to the UK.

The men and women aged between 15 and 44 were found dead after running out of air in a sealed container which arrived in Essex on 23 October 2019, which the prosecution described as their “tomb”.

During the Old Bailey hearing on Thursday, the men had to listen to their attempts to get air and tell family how much they loved them.

Following a trial, lorry driver Eamon Harrison – from Co Down, Northern Ireland – who picked up the migrants in France in a container that was shipped from Zeebrugge to Essex, was found guilty of the migrants’ manslaughter.

Read more: Why do thousands of Vietnamese migrants risk their lives to come to the UK?

Christopher Kennedy (left) and Valentin Calota (right) went to trial over their involvement in a people-smuggling ring. (PA/Elizabeth Cook)
Christopher Kennedy (left) and Valentin Calota (right) went to trial over their involvement in a people-smuggling ring. (PA/Elizabeth Cook)
Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right) are being sentenced. (PA/Elizabeth Cook)
Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right) are being sentenced. (PA/Elizabeth Cook)

Gheorghe Nica of Basildon, Essex, was also convicted of their manslaughter. Both men, alongside Christopher Kennedy, of Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, and Valentin Calota, of Birmingham, were also convicted of being part of a wider million-pound people smuggling operation.

Maurice Robinson, of Craigavon in Northern Ireland, and haulier boss Ronan Hughes, of Armagh, also Northern Ireland, admitted the manslaughters before trial.

The prosecution said they were driven by greed, aiming to make more than £1m in October 2019, and potentially making just shy of £400,000 to get the Vietnamese – who were seeking a better life – into the UK.

However, as the container was shipped to Purfleet, Essex, temperatures reached to 38.5C.

Maurice Robinson leaving Purfleet port on 23 October. (PA/Essex Police)
Maurice Robinson leaving Purfleet port on 23 October. (PA/Essex Police)
The migrants were discovered on 23 October. (PA)
The migrants were discovered on 23 October 2019. (PA)

Jurors were told the migrants, who would have had no fresh air for nearly 12 hours, died from oxygen starvation and the effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.

In a message to his family – played to court again on Thursday – Nguyen Tho Tuan, 25, said: “I cannot breathe.

“I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.”

A voice in the background can be heard saying: “Come on everyone. Open up, open up.”

Sounds of people moaning and gasping as they run out of air could be heard in the recording.

They also attempted to use a pole to try and punch through the container roof.

As the recordings played, Hughes shut his eyes while other defendants hung their heads.

A Snapchat message from Hughes to Robinson. (PA/Essex Police)
A Snapchat message from Hughes to Robinson. (PA/Essex Police)
Haulier Ronan Hughes, 40, is being sentenced. (PA)
Haulier Ronan Hughes, 40, is being sentenced. (PA)

When it arrived in the UK, the trailer was picked up early on 23 October by Robinson.

He was told by Hughes over Snapchat to “give them air quickly” and after stopping outside of Purfleet, he stopped and opened the doors to find the bodies.

After a 15-minute flurry of phone calls between Robinson, Hughes, Kennedy and Nica, Robinson called 999.

The trial continues.