Essex lorry deaths: driver found 39 dead migrants in lorry after being asked to 'give them air', court hears

A people-smuggler found 39 dead migrants in his lorry after his boss messaged him to say: “Give them air quickly, but don’t let them out”, a court heard. Lorry driver Maurice Robinson, 26, opened the sealed unit in Thurrock to find the bodies of men, women and children from Vietnam. They were trapped for almost 12 hours without fresh air as temperatures reached an “unbearable” 38.5C, reports the Mirror Online.

An Old Bailey jury heard there was no mobile phone reception inside, but some victims tried to send messages to loved ones. One 28-year-old woman, Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, wrote an unsent text that read: “Maybe going to die in the container, can’t breathe any more dear”. The court was told Robinson opened the rear doors of the container after collecting it in Essex following a crossing from Belgium.

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Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones QC said: “What he found must haunt him still.

“For the 39 men and women inside, that lorry had become their tomb. “The 28 men, 8 women and three children, two of them just 15 years old, had been sealed into that container, they’d been in pitch darkness, for at least 11 3/4 hours… “The trailer in question was a refrigerator unit but the refrigerator had not been turned on at any point whilst the victims were inside.

“And recovered temperature readings from the refrigerator unit indicate that the temperature inside the trailer rose to what must have been an unbearable 38.5? Celsius, more than 101 degrees Fahrenheit.” Post-mortem tests showed the 39 people died of oxygen starvation due to increased carbon dioxide within the confined space.

Mr Jones QC added: “There were no survivors.” Prosecutors say people-smugglers charged “upwards of GBP10,000” per person for a single trip across the Channel. The court heard Eamonn Harrison, 23, picked up the migrants in his lorry in northern Europe.

The court was told he then unhooked his trailer at the Belgian port of Zeebrugge where it was loaded onto a cargo ship. Robinson collected the container at Purfleet docks, Essex, in the early hours of October 23, 2019. Prosecutors say he “almost immediately” stopped and opened the rear doors – before discovering the dead migrants on board.

The court was told that after finding the bodies, Robinson rang accomplices before dialling 999. Christopher Kennedy, 24, was allegedly a “member of the team” involved in previous people smuggling trips. The Old Bailey heard that later that day, he responded to a friend who had asked him about the deaths, saying: “Must have been 2 meany [sic] and run out of air”.

Mr Jones QC said: “And of course he was absolutely right. “What it must have been like inside that lorry does not bear thinking about. “In fact, we do have some direct evidence of what the victims were going through, recovered from some of their mobile telephones.

“They had no signal inside the container as it came across the English Channel so they could not call for help or alert the outside world to their plight.” The people-smuggling “team” are alleged to have carried out two other illegal operations in the fortnight leading up to the deaths. On October 11 and 18, more men and women were allegedly successfully smuggled into the country.

On these occasions, the court heard, the migrants were unloaded into waiting cars and driven away. Mr Jones QC said they were taken to “safe locations”, adding: “not least because this is a payment on delivery business…the criminals need to make sure the money is paid up before the immigrants can be allowed to disappear.” Four alleged members of the people-smuggling gang are currently on trial.

Harrison, from County Down, Northern Ireland, denies 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. Prosecutors say GPS data from his lorry proves his involvement in the gang. Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, is accused of being responsible for organising onward transport for migrants after their arrival in the UK.

He denies 39 counts of manslaughter but admits conspiring to assist unlawful immigration. Lorry driver Kennedy, of Northern Ireland, and Valentin Calota, 37, of Birmingham, both deny participating in the conspiracy between May 2018 to October last year. The jury heard Robinson, from County Armagh, Ireland, has already pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter and the conspiracy charge.

He and Harrison were allegedly working for Ronan Hughes, 41, who ran a haulage company based in County Monaghan in Northern Ireland. Hughes also admits to 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to assist in unlawful immigration. Two other men have also admitted their part in the wider people-smuggling operation.

Mr Jones QC said the victims came to the UK “looking for a better life”. He added: “The risks involved, and the costs involved, not just financial but personal, can be enormous…they are prepared to take extraordinary risks in exchange for the chance of a brighter future. “They do it because they are desperate.”

The trial, in front of Judge Mr Justice Sweeney, continues and is expected to last for five weeks.

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